School's in Session: Supporting a Student with an Eating Disorder
Michelle Konstantinovsky

A new school year is just around the corner which inherently means excitement and nervous jitters for kids and students. And for those in recovery from an eating disorder, the transition may be even more complicated for both the student and parents who may be at a loss for how to offer support for getting back on campus.

“Transitions are hard for everyone,” says Equip therapist Jenna Zimmerman. “They can make us grasp at anything in our control to maintain a sense of security when we are not sure what is coming our way. This can present added vulnerability for children or adolescents that are at risk of developing eating disorder behaviors as they seek to control aspects as the change is happening around them.”

Zimmerman says there are a few distinct ways a new school year may trigger challenges related to body image and eating.

  • Kids may feel compelled to make an impression on their peers through their appearance, fixating on their body shape or how their clothes fit in comparison to others.
  • Lunchtime anxiety may prompt them to eat (or not eat) in a certain way if they feel it may help them fit in.
  • The stress that can accompany all this can also invoke appetite-suppressing tension, reducing a kid’s natural desire to eat.
  • Because back-to-school season is often characterized by clothes shopping, reuniting with peers, and adapting to new teachers and workloads, stress can be rampant.

“It’s not uncommon for eating disorders to develop from what was initially unintentional food restriction and then snowballs into something very different,” Zimmerman says.

Equip therapist Maddie Friedman shares examples of how these seasonal changes can promote eating disorder behaviors. “For example, changes to clothing size, social comparison, and new stressors can activate underlying mental health conditions or predisposition to EDs and promote maladaptive coping,” she says.

Tips for parents to help their loved ones prepare for a new school year

While every child has unique needs, experts agree that there are some tactics that could help bolster a student’s confidence and support their eating disorder recovery during the particularly tumultuous time of transitioning into a new school year.

  • Start talking early. A few weeks before the school year, initiate a frank conversation about the importance of moving from one life stage to the next. “Normalize changes to body shape and size!” Friedman says. “It is entirely appropriate (and expected) for children and adolescents to grow and gain from year to year. But our society feeds us unhealthy messaging about beauty ideals, so openly questioning and investigating these messages early and often can promote acceptance of all bodies.
  • Follow your child’s lead on clothing selection. While back-to-school shopping has traditionally been considered an important rite of passage into the new school year, shifting the focus away from new clothes may be necessary as a child figures out what they feel comfortable wearing.

    “Often parents make a big deal out of the ‘first day’ of school outfits and photos. Maybe downplay that a bit this year and/or follow your kid’s lead on this,” says Equip family mentor Laura Cohen. “If any clothes shopping is being done, do not discuss any sizes or how clothes ‘look’ on your kiddos. Parents have good intentions and may not realize that what they think is a compliment can really trigger their kiddos.”

    Friedman adds that parents may want to actively find ways to neutralize the perceived importance of clothing size. “From store to store and brand to brand, sizes are entirely inconsistent and therefore, meaningless!” she says. “The best clothes are the ones that feel good on your body, no matter what the label says. And maybe we cut out those labels because we don't need to know that information anyway!”
  • Call on your community. “Seek support from your community to ensure that your family has the necessary supervision and assistance to promote success” Friedman says. “No carer has endless resources, and tapping out can be an essential tool for countering caregiver burnout. Have a teenager at home who may need support with an afterschool snack? IPull in a neighbor or sitter to provide intermediary support.”

Tips for parents to spark conversation with educators

Parents can prepare as much as possible for potential school stressors, but teachers and other school staff will be on the front lines once school is in session. If your child is in recovery or you feel could benefit from an educator who is empathetic and educated on eating disorders and body image struggles, you may want to initiate a discussion with school staff.

Here are some tips for starting those conversations:

  • Communicate with teachers directly. “Talking to your child’s teacher is key in terms of arming your child with support during the school day,” Zimmerman says. “Having a dean or school nurse involved is great, but there's no replacement for that person who has eyes on your child all day in the classroom."
  • Draft an email chock full of info. “Because the beginning of the school year is such a hectic time for educators, sending an email and then following up in person or by phone is a great way to present resources and updates about your child,” Zimmerman says. “Having information by email allows your child’s teacher to return to the information when it’s relevant and also when they are most poised to respond and share the information appropriately.”
  • Talk to educators about the need for excused assignments. Talking with a child’s teachers ahead of the school year can help ensure a smooth transition back to the classroom, but in some cases, involving higher level administrators may be helpful as well. “For example, you may want to speak to your school’s administration about getting it in writing that your child will be excused from any assignment related to ‘health’ or ‘nutrition,’” Cohen suggests. “These tend to be common in gym and health classes, and often involve keeping a food/meal log or activity log.”
  • Make sure the treatment team is in the loop. Even if a child is prepared to return to school or start a new year after treatment, it’s essential for members of the recovery team to remain in the know about ongoing developments. “Talk with your treatment team about your child returning to school and know that they are prepared to advocate on your behalf and support you in obtaining accommodations,” Friedman says.
Michelle Konstantinovsky
Equip Contributing Editor
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