When Body Image and School Anxiety Collide
Updated: Aug 29, 2021
Blog post written by,
Dr. Bhritanie Jardine, Psy.D.
Each August, most kids are experiencing some level of back to school anxiety as they picture the laid back days of summer being replaced by back to back classes filled with new and familiar faces. But this August feels different. For many, this is the first time returning to school and physically seeing their classmates in almost two years. Anyone who has spent time around children and teenagers knows two years is enough time for them to look drastically different, and bodies have changed even more so due to a new lifestyle within the pandemic characterized by being more sedentary, isolated, and stressed. As a result, we are seeing a sharp increase in reports of body image anxiety. Here’s what to know and how to help!
Children don’t have the same mental capacity and adaptive coping skills that healthy adults do, and are
therefore more likely to “cope” with anxiety by finding something more concrete to focus on. Focusing on something more straight forward like appearance can make kids feel much more in control than when they focus on the unknowns of how the first week will go, or guessing how their interactions with their peers will turn out. Have you ever noticed a child laying out their outfit for the first day of school and planning it down to the accessories? The certainty around how they will look on the first day helps to reduce the anxiety of the vague factors of the upcoming day. So, while focusing on appearance to cope with anxiety isn’t a bad skill automatically, it can become a problem when they become overly harsh and critical about their body and/or hyper-focused on their body to the exclusion of searching for other helpful ways of coping with the anxiety that is fueling it.
If you are noticing this in your child, don’t be afraid to point it out and help them understand that its normal to want to focus on something that gives them a better sense of control. They are likely doing this automatically and need to first be able to recognize it before they can evaluate its effectiveness and make changes. You can also normalize their body changing! Given the toxic diet culture that exists it easy to forget that bodies are literally designed to evolve over time and therefore fighting those changes only set you up for constant body dissatisfaction. Children need to be taught from a young age to value their bodies for much more than just appearance. This way when they find themselves focusing on what they look like, they can intentionally switch the conversation to valuing their body for what it allows them to do. Lastly, you can help children learn to cope with the unknowns and uncertainties in life by highlighting the internal characteristics that will help them adjust to school and make new friends, such as how resilient and thoughtful they are.
Returning to school will come with lots of different emotions for your children but opening up these conversations and being a non-judgemental support for your child goes a long way in helping them adjust faster!
Bhritanie Jardine, Psy.D.
BHRITANIE JARDINE, PSYD
Eating Disorders, Grief and Loss and Trauma Expert
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