Back to School: A Body Image and Mental Health Guide for Parents and Children
The 2021 school year is upon us, and as with any school year it will bring about a range of different feelings. For some it’s a smooth transition and for others it can be really tough. Across Australia, young people have endured a range of different experiences in 2020, and it’s important to acknowledge that returning to school may feel different in our COVID normal world.
An absolute positive of a new school year is that it presents everyone with an opportunity to start a fresh; to grow, develop and strengthen as an individual.
Here are some things that everyone can do to prepare themselves, their mental health and their body image for the new school year.
Dress positively for your day: Our bodies change, grow and develop – that is a normal and natural part of childhood and adolescence. The size you wear is not important –our weight, size, body shape, muscularity does not determine to our worth. Ensure your clothing/uniform fits comfortably and that you present yourself to the world in a way that demonstrates self-respect. This can do good things for your self-esteem and body confidence.
It’s unfair to compare: Comparing ourselves is a human thing to do, but unfortunately making body comparisons to our friends, peers, siblings and celebrities/influencers is a sure way to bust a positive body image. We are all different and that is ok. No one is perfect! Create a mantra or positive affirmation to use at school. Doing so can help you stop or combat some of the unhelpful and unfair body and appearance comparisons that are easy to make when around friends and peers. ‘I am enough’ or even a simple ‘stop’ can be enough to circuit break the comparison trap!
Try to reduce your use of social media: We get it, it’s not easy to stay away as it’s an important part of your world! But school holidays generally mean more time on social media and more time scrolling, which leads to consuming picture-perfect, highly stylised images of friends, celebs and influencers bodies; their bodies, food, exercise routines and lifestyle. The fact is it’s not always great for our mental health and body image. The more we are on social media, the harder it is to stay savvy, so having some time away from the platforms can really make a big difference to how we feel. During Term time, be more mindful of the time you spend on social and how it’s impacting your emotions. Curate your newsfeed, diversify what you see and follow people who do good work in our world.
Tune into your body cues: Our bodies send us internal and external cues all the time and these cues can influence the way we think, feel and behave. Some experiences may make us feel safe or unsafe and our body will respond in lots of different ways. Tuning in and being aware of how you feel in certain situations, around certain people, and when you see certain images is important. If you feel your cues are too intense or challenging to manage, reaching out for some support can really help.
Start your day in a positive way: Finding ways to begin your day in a positive way can boost your mood and energy levels. Everyone starts their day in their own unique way – some people really don’t enjoy ‘mornings,’ however it can be really helpful to change the narrative so that the start of your day begins strong! Walking your dog (or cat!), doing some stretches or yoga, meditating, staying off social media, enjoying a nutritious breakfast, putting some up-beat music on while you get ready, and encouraging family members to have breakfast together, even if it’s just once a week. Find and do activities and rituals that move your body and mood in ways that work for you.
Fuel your body: Learning, growing, taking part in music, sports, other activities, even breathing(!) all require energy and fuel. Ensuring you listen to your body and ensuring its needs are met during your day is so important. It can be tempting to look and watch what other people are doing when it comes to eating and exercise, but your body has its own requirements to ensure it can perform and function at its best. Eating lunch at school is also so important for our brain function, so avoid looking at, commenting on or comparing your lunchbox or snacks to others. You Do You!
Add some body gratitude and body kindness practice to your day: No matter what your size, shape, weight, or gender is; the practice of body gratitude and body kindness can help to build positive thoughts and feelings about our bodies. Focusing on what your body can do and finding ways to speak and be kind to your body can help to improve body image. It’s not always easy and is tougher for some people, but regular practice can make this easier. The more we hear and focus on positive and good things, the better we feel.
Tips for parents/care-givers:
Supporting mental health, wellbeing and a healthy body image in your child:
- Help your child to establish a positive morning routine to help reduce stress, nerves or anxiety. This can help improve their mood. If your child/teen is experiencing school refusal, it’s important to communicate with your child/teen’s school so that they can offer support.
- Ensure your child has a uniform or clothing for school that fits comfortably and is neat and tidy, as clean well-fitting clothing and uniforms can help to improve self-esteem and body confidence.
- It’s natural and necessary for bodies to change, develop and grow. Avoid making comments about your child/teen’s body shape or size, such as, ‘you’ve grown so much’ ‘oh wow, you’re now a size ##’. This is known to increase feelings of body dissatisfaction, insecurity, and shame. Bodies do not require a running commentary.
- Aim to provide the most nutritious lunch/snacks that you can afford for your child/teen. Schools and young people often report that lunchtime can be a time for diet talk, toxic body and health talk, food/lunchbox shaming and/or eating comparisons to occur. If this is something you are concerned about with your child, we encourage you to speak to our National Helpline. But avoid demonising certain foods
- Role model healthy behaviours and attitudes around eating, exercise, your body AND returning to work/study. It’s easier for child to be what they can see!
- Understand the various social media platforms and do your best to ensure that teens are using platforms at the ages recommended. If you are concerned about any of the content on the various apps, or if you need support on how to ensure your teen’s social media experience is a positive one, the e-safety website has a great range of free resources and information designed for parents. Information can be found here
Butterfly’s prevention services run student, staff and parent sessions addressing the various topics above and more, providing evidence informed and age/role appropriate information to support young people and their body image. If this is something you’d like to see at your child’s school please contact our Education team for more information firstname.lastname@example.org
For more resources on how to improve your child’s body image, head to Butterfly’s resource page.
Concerned about yourself or a loved one?
If you are concerned someone you know may be struggling with their body image, eating behaviours and mental health it’s important to seek support sooner than later, as this can help to reduce the severity and duration of eating and body image issues.
Butterfly National Helpline (1800 33 4673) is a free and confidential service offering support in relation to eating disorders and body image issues www.butterflynationalhelpline.org.au