Ask an Expert

My daughter is nervous about starting middle school this year. Do you have any tips for calming her anxiety?

Start with some reassuring conversation 

Rachel Busman, PsyD

Co-Director, Selective Mutism Program, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center
Child Mind Institute

Q:  My daughter is nervous about starting middle school this year. Do you have any tips for calming her anxiety?

A:  It's normal for a child to feel anxious about going back to school, particularly if she is transitioning into middle school. Anxiety often peaks during transition times, and it makes sense; when you think back to when you were a kid, going to middle school felt like a Big Deal.

I often see kids who are nervous about the next grade because it is unfamiliar, so they aren't sure what to expect. Often their worries will be very reasonable: "Will I be able to find my class?" or, "What if the new teacher yells at me?" In these situations it's a good idea to sit down and really talk to children about their concerns. You can reassure your daughter that most of her classmates are probably having the same back-to-school jitters, and she will likely feel better after talking through her worries.

Of course, sometimes concerns, while common, aren't very realistic. I've had kids tell me very seriously they've heard middle schoolers are big and scary or, "Everyone says high schoolers are really mean." Encouraging realistic thinking about the upcoming year is important. Talk about the things that are making her anxious, and be the voice of reason: "It's true that in middle school there are going to be a lot of eighth graders, and the eighth graders are going to be taller than you, but do you really think they are all going to be mean? What's the likelihood that they are going to pick on you, or even necessarily notice you?" Encouraging realistic expectations also means that you shouldn't sugarcoat things. I would never say to tell your daughter, "Everything's going to be fantastic—it's going to be a perfect year!" It's much better to acknowledge that there will be some challenges. Maybe there will be more homework in sixth grade, but there are probably going to be some cool clubs she can look forward to joining in middle school, too.

In the same vein, you should be careful not to make yourself seem anxious. Parents can also feel nervous at the beginning of a new school year, particularly if they are remembering problems from the previous year. Don't let her hear you telling someone, "I've heard really bad things about this teacher" or, "We really don't want to have a bad experience again."

Finally, she might find it very reassuring to visit her new school ahead of time. Helping her form a mental map of where everything is—the sixth grade wing, her classroom, the cafeteria, the gym, the nurse's office—can make her feel like she already has a head start.

The last thing I would add is to pay attention to how much your daughter is worrying. If you notice her asking about school every day, several times a day, and if you think it is interfering with her ability to enjoy the rest of her summer, it might be a good idea to talk with a professional.

Published: August 14, 2012

For more advice on helping anxious kids, read Back to School Dos and Don’ts.

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