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Education|10 March 2022

Coping with puberty as your child prepares to return to school.

Written by Pragya Lodha
The Mumbai Program Director & Clinical Psychologist at The MINDS Foundation. Honorary Associate Editor for the Indian Journal of Mental Health with over 100 National and International publications

The pandemic has just passed its 2 year mark, which means for many children across the country, it has been a long time since they have seen their classmates in person. In childhood and puberty, this is enough time for many physical changes to occur, making them look different than how their peers may remember. When they return to school, some children will be taller, some will have facial hair, and some will have deeper voices. While this is a very normal part of growing up, these changes will seem more sudden due to the lack of contact they have had with each other. 

Additionally, sedentary lifestyle many children have had due to COVID lockdowns and restrictions might mean that some have gained extra weight that they are uncomfortable with, and overexposure to edited images on social media could reinforce concerns about their appearance. This anxiety is heightened for children as they return to school and face socialising with their peers. While mental health professionals across the country note that appointments with children have gone up over 30% in the weeks leading up to school, one of the main concerns highlighted by children is the issue of how they look. 

Child psychologists note that when external circumstances are out of our control, such as with the pandemic, a very natural response is to attempt to control what we can, which is often our appearance and weight. In response to this, parents should model healthy behaviour such as eating well-balanced and full meals, using positive words to talk about all bodies including their own, and exercising regularly but focusing on the health and strength improvements instead of weight loss and toning. 

Pragya Lodha, Program Director of MINDS Foundation, also suggests that parents can teach children what to value in themselves and others by simply using praise and encouragement. She suggests complimenting your child on things they can control: how well they treat others, how much effort they put into their schoolwork, or how well they take care of themselves instead of factors outside of their control, such as their appearance. 

It’s important to note that boys and girls often experience puberty and body image issues in different ways. For example, girls will usually hit puberty earlier than boys, and are generally more focused with weight control, whereas boys may be more concerned with physical fitness and muscle-building. Of course, each child is unique, and the only way to be certain of your child’s relationship with their body is by having honest and supportive conversations with them from an early age. Explain to them what to expect during puberty, that it is okay to look different than their friends, and that their body will keep changing but it does not determine their value as a person. You can also share your own experiences, or discuss how social media pushes edited images that may affect their relationship with their own body. 

Some signs your child is developing an unhealthy body image include controlling their food intake, expressing feelings about not liking or wanting to change their body, and sensitivity to comments about appearance, weight, diet, and exercise. Body image issues are common, but if unaddressed can be serious, leading to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or other mental health issues. If you are worried about your child’s preoccupation with their appearance, we recommend making an appointment with a professional such as a paediatrician or child psychologist. They will be able to assess the situation and determine the best ways to help your child. Help is always available.

Read more about 12 Risk Factors That Can Lead to Poor Mental Health in Children


References:

  • Ganesan, S., Ravishankar, S., & Ramalingam, S. (2018). Are body image issues affecting our adolescents? A cross-sectional study among college going adolescent girls. Indian Journal Of Community Medicine43(5), 42. doi: 10.4103/ijcm.ijcm_62_18
  • Mensah, F., Bayer, J., Wake, M., Carlin, J., Allen, N., & Patton, G. (2013). Early Puberty and Childhood Social and Behavioral Adjustment. Journal Of Adolescent Health53(1), 118-124. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.12.018
  • Reel, J., Voelker, D., & Greenleaf, C. (2015). Weight status and body image perceptions in adolescents: current perspectives. Adolescent Health, Medicine And Therapeutics, 149. doi: 10.2147/ahmt.s68344
  • Riboli, G., Borlimi, R., & Caselli, G. (2022). A qualitative approach – delineates changes on pubertal body image after menarche. International Journal Of Adolescence And Youth27(1), 111-124. doi: 10.1080/02673843.2022.2032219Richburg, A. (2021). Depression, Anxiety, and Pubertal Timing: Current Research and Future Directions. University Of Michigan Undergraduate Research Journal15(0). doi: 10.3998/umurj.1383

The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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