8 to 3: How to help your teen navigate body image anxiety amid the pandemic
COVID-19 has added another layer of stress to the travails of puberty.
AdvertisementMental health professionals who work with teens told me that many of their clients are increasingly anxious about returning to school in a few weeks, and how they look is a big contributing factor. This anxiety is stoked by the social apprehension that so many of us have felt as we’ve re-integrated into the outside world.
“When we’re worried about nebulous things, we often shift our attention to something concrete we can worry about as a way to gain a measure of control,” said Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author specializing in the development of teenage girls
. “So worries about where one fits in socially could readily morph into one’s waistline and efforts to change one’s waistline.”This can include periodic worries about appearance and what classmates will think, and full-on disordered eating.In acolumn for the New York Times, headtopics.com
Damour reported that the National Eating Disorders Assn. helpline saw a 40% jump in calls between March 2020 and April 2021. Among callers who gave their age, 35% were 13 to 17 years old.Psychologists say that adolescents’ increased time spent on social media while stuck at home is a primary culprit. Teens’ Instagram feeds are inundated with meticulously edited photos of celebrities and influencers. If a 13-year-old boy searches for fitness content on TikTok, he will be deluged with imagery of ultra-fit guys, thanks to the app’s algorithm.
Much of this anxiety should resolve itself once kids are back in school, Damour told me.“When kids are alone in their rooms, looking at themselves and then looking at their peers on social media, appearance becomes outsized in its importance,” she explained. “When they get to be with one another again, appearance will be counterbalanced by the richer, more interesting aspects of who these kids are that do not transmit so easily in an online environment.”
In the meantime, what can parents do to support their teens as they navigate this increasingly complicated labyrinth of adolescent unease?AdvertisementFirst off, don’t be afraid to talk to them about it. “There’s always this concern with kids in this age group — that if you talk about something, like sex or bodies or contentious friendships, it makes it worse,” said Charlotte Markey, author of “The Body Image Book for Girls” and professor of health psychology at Rutgers University at Camden.
But the opposite is true, she said. Parents should normalize these struggles by relaying to their kids that how we look changes over time, and that this isinevitable and natural and OK, said Stella Zweben Samuel, a licensed clinical social worker in Encino who works with teens. headtopics.com
“Have conversations that really question beauty ideals and be complimentary to other aspects of who your kids are,” Markey said. “‘You’re such a good cook, you’re a really good friend to your sister. You’re so smart. I love your sense of humor.’”Modeling a healthy relationship to your own body and food is also important. Don’t disparage your appearance or obsess about what you eat in front of your kids.
AdvertisementIf your child is hesitant to open up about body image anxiety, but you’re seeing it show up in the way they’re eating, dressing or avoiding certain social situations, start by asking questions that are more neutral. Are you excited about going back to school, seeing your friends? Do you want to go shopping for supplies and clothes?
Markey recommends initiating some of the more difficult conversations in the car, a tactic she’s used with her own kids. “It eases some of the seriousness of it,” she said. “You’re driving and you can’t make eye contact, and it makes it easier for you to be a listener because you’re focusing on something else.”
When your child is ready to talk, avoid comparing their experience to your own, Zweben Samuel said. And don’t try to fix it for them. Ask open-ended questions that allow them to fully express their anxiety. When they’re done, offer to help them come up with coping techniques, such as journaling, drawing or spending some time alone, whatever works for them. headtopics.com
If you’re at all worried about potential disordered eating, make an appointment with your pediatrician or a therapist. And be mindful that these struggles tend to look different in boys. Instead of being preoccupied by weight, they might seem obsessed with fitness or being really “cut.” This could look like spending hours each day working out and religiously consuming protein shakes.
Advertisement“Getting healthy can become disordered really quick,” Markey said.The last thing you want to do is put your child on a diet, which could damage their relationship to food and their bodies for the rest of their lives, Markey said.If your teen says they’d like to go on a diet, don’t invalidate their concerns. Instead, invite them to build healthier habits with you: walks after dinner, a dance class, shopping for healthy snacks together.
“You say, ‘Your job is to take really good care of yourself. We’re here to make that happen; let’s enjoy a wide range of nutritious and enjoyable foods like we did before the pandemic. The rest will sort itself out,’” Damour suggested.AdvertisementThe emphasis should always be on kids taking good care of themselves.
“If they start to take something to an extreme,” Damour said, “like restricting food or exercising in a way that is punishing, it allows parents to come right back to principle: ‘You are not taking good care of yourself. So we need to course correct.’”
How else can we help kids? Crowdsourcing the answerAdopting a school therapy pet. High school seniors mentoring freshmen. Daily check-ins using sticky notes.AdvertisementThese are some of the ideas featured in a recent initiative led by the USC Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education. The project, called the Education (Re)Open, invited students, teachers and parents to join other educators in crowdsourcing ideas on how to welcome students back to campus. After receiving more than 250 ideas from across the world, the project chose 56 to highlight.
“They’re not coming from the usual suspects,” said Alan Arkatov, director of the USC engagement group. He said the project had given “voice to those in underserved communities.”At least a quarter of the ideas were centered on students’ social-emotional learning needs. Many participants recognized it’s difficult to learn when students don’t feel connected to their teachers and schools, Arkatov said.
“It was clearly top of mind for every parent, every student, every educator,” he said. Read more: Los Angeles Times »
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