It’s back to school time at so many homes across the country, including mine. With a daughter entering her last year of middle school, and another daughter entering her senior year of high school, I am reminded that the start of a new school year brings a full spectrum of emotions for students and parents alike.
Our conversations have been speckled with a lot of excitement, some anxiety, and a lot of regret that their summer is over and they didn’t accomplish all they had hoped. My girls—along with so many other kids across the country—need support and validation of their feelings during this important transitional time, as well as a few reminders about productive strategies to support positive self-esteem and healthy interpersonal relationships.
Celebrate your differences. It’s important to help our children understand the beauty of what makes people unique and teach them the value of diversity at an early age. Different interests, different body types, different learning styles, different backgrounds—these differences make us special, and we should be proud of them. Not everyone understands the importance of celebrating our differences and we sometimes run into “haters.” Singing and dancing to Taylor Swift’s self-love anthem, “Shake It Off,” can be a motivator when your kids – or even you! – are discouraged about being different or feeling unaccepted by their peers. It lightens their mood, creates some distance from their emotions, and helps them think more clearly about the situation, how they can address it, or if they need to ask for help.
It’s also okay to want to “fit in.” We’re all different, but humans share a desire for approval and connection to our peers. Being made fun of or feeling left out are painful experiences at any age, but can be particularly significant in the development of positive self-esteem and body image for children and teens. While seeking external validation is common, we need to help our kids understand that the most important acceptance comes from within ourselves.
Don’t tolerate bullying. It’s simple—don’t be a bully, and don’t stand idly by when others are being harassed. A disparaging comment, purposeful exclusion, intimidation, and physical violence all constitute traditional bullying, while the growing popularity of social media has given rise to cyber-bullying. The connection between bullying and depression, anxiety, and even self-harm and suicide among children and teens is well documented; however, the stress associated with bullying, particularly fat-shaming and harassment based on weight, size, or shape, can also contribute to the development of an eating disorder. The movie Mean Girls is a favorite at our home and we have had multiple conversations around the themes of bullying and the mean girls at school. I encourage my girls to think critically, put themselves into the role of the targeted girl, and to think before they speak. What may be said as a joke or in a teasing manner may feel devastating to the person to whom it is said. Two sayings frequently heard in our household are “Be kind” and “Be the bigger and better person.”
Specific to my expertise as an eating disorder therapist, I would be remiss not to mention the connection between developmental milestones, routine stressors, and eating disorders. The majority of eating disorders—up to 95 percent—develop in young people between the ages of 12 and 25. During these developmental stages, kids are transitioning to middle school, entering high school, attending college, even graduating from college to pursue careers. In addition to the unique interpersonal challenges facing young people (the desire to “fit in,” bullying, etc.), intense competition for limited spots on athletic teams, and increasingly rigorous college admission standards can breed perfectionism and an unhealthy stress level. Along with developmental milestones, pressure to achieve excellence can trigger an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia in teens and young adults.
There is no silver bullet to prevent fear, anxiety, bullying, and eating disorders in our children despite the best of intentions and ongoing support. What we can do as parents is pay attention, listen, and take meaningful action when issues arise. It is imperative to understand that while we may think it’s just “back to school” season—the very same rite of passage that comes and goes every year—that this transition can be scary, painful, and/or anxiety-provoking for our children. Talk to them about their concerns, plans, and goals. Take notice of any changes that occur related to their appearance, demeanor, and attitude. Trust your instincts about your kids, and seek help from experienced professionals when a concern arises. Most issues can be managed effectively with specialized treatment and recovery skills, and your child can thrive and enjoy young adulthood. Find simple ways to share these positive messages with your children. I still put a personal written note, meaningful photo, or favorite saying in their lunches. Initially, they would make comments about being “too old” for this ritual; however, I hear from my girls’ friends that they share the messages and photos with them every day at lunch. They are listening to and watching us – even when we think they aren’t!
What are some of the special ways you share positive, motivational messages with your children or your peers? I invite you to share your back to school insights and experiences in the comments below!