The return to school is never seamless for kids. While there’s sure to be excitement about reuniting with friends and getting new clothes, the stress of new classmates, teachers, and changes in routine can actually be very emotionally taxing for young ones. And for students who’ve gone through puberty or experienced weight fluctuations over the course of the summer, the impending unsolicited commentary will leave them especially vulnerable.
While anyone of any age can be a target for appearance-focused comments, Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., FAED, distinguished professor of eating disorders in the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says pre-teens are in a particularly tough spot.
“Sixth through eighth graders often experience summer growth and maturation spurts as a matter of course,” Dr. Bulik says. “But because kids may be out of practice when it comes to socializing with other children due to the pandemic, unfiltered comments and a lack of solidarity between students may be more likely.”
In addition to the run-of-the-mill stress around these maturation spurts, some kids may also have to contend with returning to in-person schooling after a period of attending school in a hybrid format, during which growth, maturation, and potential weight changes are more likely to have occurred. All of this can amount to even more stress for returning students.
“As is the case with so many other stressors in our lives, our culture perpetuates the myth that trying to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ our bodies might be the ticket to feeling better and more at ease in this world,” says Equip family mentor, Oona Hanson.
Teachers and other adults can sometimes say the wrong things, too
It’s certainly not just peers who might be delivering uninvited opinions about a student’s physical changes — adults can often be culprits. And even the most well-intentioned comments can leave a lasting mark.
“Teachers need to stifle the urge to comment on how children have changed,” Dr. Bulik says. “There is really no good way to comment on a child or adolescent’s changed appearance. Just focus on how great it is to have them back in the classroom. If you comment on someone’s maturation, they will feel like their pubertal changes are on display. ”
Hanson says she’s most concerned about messaging from academic leaders that may center on “the so-called ‘childhood ob*sity epidemic,’” which she says often dominates the cultural conversation around kids’ health. “Mandated health and nutrition curriculum, cafeteria signage, subtle messages during P.E. class, and even content in word problems or language arts passages can teach kids they should be restricting their foods and trying to control their body size,” she says.
Hanson also points out that all of these real-life pressures only compound the triggering content children and teens are often exposed to on social media. “This is all on top of dangerous ‘what I eat in a day’ posts and weight-loss ‘tips’ from TikTokers and other social media influencers,” she says. “Panic about pandemic weight gain has only added fuel to the fire; these messages hurt all children, but for a child in recovery from an eating disorder, those well-intended recommendations can pose an immediate health risk.”
What parents can do to educate and empower their kids as they return to school
Equip co-founder and chief clinical officer Erin Parks, Ph.D., says there are plenty of ways to prepare kids who are returning to school. One strategy is to educate them about cultural norms they may encounter and talk openly with them about what they hear from others outside the home.
“Tell your kids that in many cultures around the world, when you haven’t seen someone in a long time, it is culturally normal to comment on their body: ‘You’ve gotten so tall!’; ‘you got your braces off!’; your face has hair!’” Dr. Parks says. “Ask your kids where they’ve observed this; if your kids respond with silence and an eye-roll, have some answers prepared for them to better understand. Maybe you can point out they heard it from a grandparent they only see annually, or maybe they even heard you do it!”
Dr. Bulik says providing kids with tools and a safe space are essential back-to-school strategies as well. “Unfortunately, kids can be mean and that is just a fact,” she says. “We can arm our children with words. For example, saying out loud, ‘that’s a very hurtful thing to say.’ Or saying, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you, could you please repeat that?’ But hurtful comments can still get under their skin and stick like velcro. Try to help your children feel comfortable sharing mean things other kids say with you, so you can help them process these comments.”
It’s also important to acknowledge when your child may be perpetuating hurtful verbal exchanges, and help them to course-correct. “It’s really hard for us to realize when our kids are the bullies or the ones making the hurtful comments,” Dr. Bulik says. “Of course, you also should be watching how you’re commenting on people you haven’t seen for a long time. Watch out for comments like, ‘wow, she gained/lost weight’ or ‘did you see how gray her hair is?’ If you are making comments or judgments about other people, that becomes a model for your children.”
Hanson says that while it may be tempting for parents to rush in and remedy any (intentional or accidental) bullying that does occur, it may be best to take a less direct approach. “When your child is expressing body dissatisfaction, it’s very tempting to rush in with reassurances, such as ‘no, honey, you’re beautiful,’” she says. This natural and well-meaning response can have unintended consequences: It risks invalidating the child’s experience, it shuts down conversation that might have revealed the emotions underneath the body image concerns, and it ultimately reinforces that physical appearance is of high importance.
What should parents do instead? Hanson suggests taking a breath and leaning into the child’s discomfort. She explains, “You could try saying something like, ‘That sounds like a really painful feeling to have. Can you tell me more?’”
Dr. Bulik agrees and says letting kids experience their feelings is an important part of the growing process. “Sometimes parents want to rush in and fix the negative experiences that their children have had, but sometimes kids don’t want that,” she says. “They just want the opportunity to share what happened and lighten the load a little.”
Dr. Parks suggests asking kids if they’ve ever felt embarrassed or hurt when someone has commented on how their appearance changed.
“If you get a shrug and an ‘I don’t know,’ from your child, be ready with an anecdote from your own life when you felt self-conscious, sad, or uncomfortable when someone commented on your appearance,” she says. “Sometimes the more recent anecdotes actually have more impact; kids still have a hard time imagining us as teenagers! It can also be helpful to tell them about how you have commented on others’ appearances, and while it was well-intentioned, you can see how you may have made the person uncomfortable, and you’re trying to stop making unsolicited comments on other people’s bodies.”
Dr. Parks offers an example from her own life that drives home the importance of why parents might want to consider preparing their children for unsolicited physical commentary: “My 9-year-old son, in a rare moment of vulnerability, told me that he didn’t like his stomach fat, and shared that he’d heard that cold showers may burn fat,” she says. “In a household where a parent preaches body neutrality, that all foods are good foods, and health at every size, children can and will still have negative inner commentary about their physical appearance. I asked my son, ‘has anyone ever said anything about your body that made you feel bad?’ He shook his head no. Then I asked, ‘have you ever said anything about your body that made you feel bad?’ And this time he nodded and said, ‘sometimes.’”
In light of this anecdote, Dr. Parks notes that kids don’t necessarily need outside voices to amplify an already-thriving inner bully. “As you send your children back to school, acknowledge to them that you too have an inner critic that tells you that other parents are cleaner, more organized, and never late, and also tells you that you need to lose weight, you have too many wrinkles, and your lips get too thin when you smile. Show your children that everyone has an inner critic and that they can and should fight back, just like you do,” she says.
How to model body acceptance at home
“As with so many things in parenting, what we do is sometimes more powerful than what we say,” Hanson says. “Modeling body acceptance can be a powerful protective factor for our kids. We can do this in a number of ways: Not weighing ourselves, nourishing ourselves, and moving our bodies in ways that feel good, matter-of-factly getting clothes in a larger size if our body has changed, and not letting appearance concerns prevent us from engaging in activities.”
There is also immense power in helping children reappraise what merits value in this world. “Make sure you praise them for who they are and the values and skills they have rather than how they look,” Bulik says. “Teach them how to value and compliment those things in others. Talking about both positive and negative experiences of the day is still an important touchstone of family life.”