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As students around the country returned to their classrooms for the new academic year, they most likely experienced a range of emotions: excitement about reuniting with friends, anxiety about upcoming academic challenges, and stress caused by new routines and expectations.
Returning to school after the long summer break can represent a significant change in the day-to-day experiences in a young person’s life, and it may bring with it unique sources of social and academic stress. For some students, the changes and pressures they face might increase their risk for experiencing eating disorder symptoms.
As kids and teens settle into a new school year and continue to readjust to in-person schooling, they may need extra support and guidance to successfully navigate challenges, adopt healthy coping strategies, and embrace a positive body image.
How Eating Disorders Can Affect Kids and Teens
Symptoms of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, often appear during adolescence or young adulthood. However, eating disorders can also develop during childhood. Estimates shared by the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that the lifetime prevalence of eating disorders among U.S. adolescents ages 13-18 is 2.7% .
Sometimes younger children may show subclinical symptoms of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. This means that a child may display some but not all symptoms of a particular eating disorder. In one cross-sectional study of 10- to 11-year-olds in the U.S., the prevalence of subclinical anorexia was 6.5% for boys and 6% for girls .
In some cases, a young person may struggle with unhealthy eating behaviors that later develop into an eating disorder. Although each person’s experience is unique, eating disorders often involve feelings of low self-worth and emotional distress and can lead to serious health complications. Difficulties around food and body image should always be taken seriously, among both children and adults.
Potential Impacts of the School Environment
Adolescents who struggle with perfectionism may be at risk for developing eating disorders when they return to the classroom environment. One review study found a consistent positive relationship between perfectionism and eating disorder symptoms in children under the age of 14 . Studies have also associated perfectionism with an increased risk for eating disorder symptoms among older adolescents and adults .
The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could also add to the academic pressures some students feel. Research by McKinsey & Company found that the pandemic caused students to fall an average of five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading in spring 2021 .
Harassment and bullying, including attacks on someone’s physical appearance, can also seriously affect how a young person feels about themselves and put them at risk for developing an eating disorder. One study found that adolescent girls who experienced higher levels of weight-related bullying at school also had more body dissatisfaction . Body dissatisfaction has been linked to the development of eating disorders among adolescents .
Additionally, even without the presence of overt bullying, adolescents can feel strong pressure to conform to perceived cultural ideals around beauty and physical appearance. These effects may be stronger in the school environment where young people regularly interact with and may compare themselves with peers.
How Schools Can Reduce Eating Disorder Risk
While returning to school might place some students at risk for developing eating disorders, there are many characteristics of the school environment that can be protective and positive for students who may be struggling with stress or other emotional difficulties. For example, for some students, school routines might provide helpful structure as well as help reduce isolation and enhance social support.
In school environments, kids typically have access to supportive professionals, including counselors, teachers, and coaches. These individuals can help students address mental health concerns and cope with challenges.
However, for the above support systems to be effective, school staff and caregivers will likely need to work together to ensure that students’ environments support positive body image, good communication, and healthy coping skills.
Supporting Kids as They Return to School
As a parent or caregiver, you may be in an important position to help your child transition back to school life, whether they need help adapting to a new school year or readjusting to in-person learning after the earlier impacts of the pandemic. The following are some ways you can promote healthy and empowering approaches to eating, body image, and mental health for your child:
- Encourage your child to participate in family meals
- Model healthy attitudes about food and body image at home, and avoid making negative comments about your child’s body or size
- Encourage openness, communication, and vulnerability, understanding that eating disorders often reinforce secretive behavior and increase feelings of guilt and shame
- Spend quality time with your child that doesn’t involve pressure to perform or be perfect
If you suspect that your child is struggling with symptoms of an eating disorder, it’s important to take action and provide support. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can have lasting negative effects on a child’s or adolescent’s health and well-being.
There are many resources available that can help you learn about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders as well as the effective treatment options available. As a loved one, you can play a crucial role in detecting the presence of eating disorder symptoms and providing meaningful support for your child.
References National Institute of Mental Health. Eating disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders  Murray, S.B., Ganson, K.T., Chu, J., Jann, K., & Nagata, J.M. (2022). The prevalence of preadolescent eating disorders in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 70(5), 825–828. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.11.031  Vacca, M. & Lombardo, C. (2020). Perfectionism and eating-related symptoms in young children: A systematic review. Perspectives on Early Childhood Psychology and Education, 4(2), 237–262. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344863004_Perfectionism_and_Eating-Related_Symptoms_in_Young_Children_A_Systematic_Review_Perspectives_on_Early_Childhood_Psychology_and_Education_42_237-262  Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2021, July 27). COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning  Voelker, D.K., Reel, J.J., & Greenleaf, C. (2015). Weight status and body image perceptions in adolescents: Current perspectives. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 6, 149–158. https://doi.org/10.2147/AHMT.S68344
About Timberline Knolls
Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on December 14, 2022. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on December 14, 2022