Q: This is my 11-year-old daughter’s first year in middle school. Although nothing is really different, she has begun complaining that she doesn’t want to go. When I ask her what’s wrong, she says only that she doesn’t like what they are doing in gym. Moreover, this past weekend she didn’t want to visit her dad. (We’re divorced and have had shared custody for the past four years.) Her father and teacher are also at a loss to explain what’s going on.
A: Even though nothing looks different to you, I suspect that your daughter is going through some profound changes. There is a big difference between primary and middle school, where there are greater demands academically and socially. More importantly, she’s likely hitting puberty, and the changes she is experiencing in her body are causing her discomfort and possibly worry and confusion.
Gym class usually works to put such worries under the microscope. Girls often feel very self-conscious when they change their clothes in the locker room with other girls watching: A lot of unhealthy comparing goes on, and sometimes subtle teasing or even obvious harassment happens. If it is a coed gym class, she may have experienced some unwelcome behaviours, verbal or nonverbal, from boys too.
If she feels uncomfortable with her dad, that’s probably not a reflection on their relationship as a whole. Gen-erally, as girls move into adolescence, there’s less physical affection with their fathers, and that’s a sign of a normal but difficult transition, during which it’s important that fathers adjust their ways of relating, while continuing to be caring and responsive. Her dad needs to be aware of the changes she’s undergoing, as well as be patient and sensitive to her feelings.