October 26, 2021

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8 to 3: How to help your teen navigate body image anxiety amid the pandemic

This is the July 27, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Hi, and welcome to the 8 to 3 newsletter. I’m Laura Newberry, a reporter on the education team, and I’m filling in for Sonja Sharp.

The physical changes that accompany early adolescence are awkward at best and excruciating at worst. It’s a phase of life that many of us recall with a shudder — the breakouts, the growth spurts, the hair in new places.

But COVID-19 has added another layer of stress to the travails of puberty. A good proportion of kids in California haven’t seen most of their classmates in more than a year — enough time for a tween or teen to become almost unrecognizable to those not in their immediate circle. There are also the physical changes that have come with a less active lifestyle during the pandemic, and turning more often to food as a source of comfort.

Mental 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 a column for the New York Times, 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?

First 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 is inevitable and natural and OK, said Stella Zweben Samuel, a licensed clinical social worker in Encino who works with teens.

“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.

If 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.

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.

“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.

The 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 answer

Adopting a school therapy pet. High school seniors mentoring freshmen. Daily check-ins using sticky notes.

These 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.

Other ideas included creative strategies to encourage students to talk about their experiences: creating a photo project with friends and family; participating in community podcasts where students can tell jokes, read poetry, sing; participating in a virtual deep-breathing group online to relieve anxiety.

Arkatov said members of the initiative are already working with the Los Angeles County Office of Education to bring the ideas to some of the 80 school districts in the county. And other school leaders across the country are reaching out to participate in the next round of ideas, Arkatov said.

You can check out the solutions here.

Masks, money and meals

—This was going to be the year that summer school went BIG. With a huge infusion of state money and a desire to make up ground lost during the pandemic, educators prepared for a massive influx of students. For the most part, it never came. To see why, take a look at my story at latimes.com.

—The Times’ Howard Blume has been covering Los Angeles Unified School District superintendents since the mid ‘90s, when Sid Thompson, the first African American superintendent, held sway. Since then, he’s covered (take a deep breath): Ruben Zacarias, Ramon Cortines, Roy Romer, David Brewer, Ramon Cortines, John Deasy, Ramon Cortines, Michelle King, long-term interim Vivian Ekchian, Austin Beutner, and now interim Superintendent Megan Reilly. All of which is a long way of saying that the recently retired Beutner was the latest in a long line of mostly short-tenured supes, and Howard has written an assessment of his time in office. The quick takeaway: Beutner’s time at the helm was “defined by events outside the classroom, in ways no one imagined when he was appointed chief of the nation’s second-largest school district in 2018.” And that’s an understatement.

—The father of a rising senior at Palo Alto High School sued the Palo Alto Unified School District for requiring his son to wear a mask at school. A.J. Gokcek, who is an attorney, said his son has a speech-related disability that is exacerbated by mask-wearing. District officials say that’s a smokescreen. My colleague Lila Seidman has the story.

—Free lunch, anyone? Starting this coming school year, that’s exactly what will be offered to every public school student in California. Of course, someone’s got to pay: Eventually, it will cost state taxpayers $650 million a year.

—It’s never too early to begin saving for college. UC regents have raised tuition for incoming freshmen, bringing the annual costs for fall 2022 to $12,570. (This does not include housing, food and basics.) Under the plan, tuition stays flat for incoming freshmen for up to six years, allowing for some budget stability.

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On reclaiming history (and other topics) …

—When you’re in fourth grade, you learn about California history. (If you’re an adult who grew up in California, you almost certainly built a model of a Spanish mission; that requirement lapsed a few years ago.) Now the Legislature has decided that California state parks, many of them in historic locations, should be free to all fourth-graders and their families. An annual pass will be available starting Sept. 21. EdSource.

—When most people think about school desegregation, they think about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated schools. But it was not the first such landmark; at least two successful lawsuits by Mexican American parents in California preceded it, although they did not apply nationally. The executive director at MANA de San Diego, González Perezchica, writes about this forgotten history. San Diego Union-Tribune.

—What parents need to know about kids and the Delta variant. Washington Post.

—Finally, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is pleading with parents to get vaccinated, and to make sure that everyone in their family who is old enough is vaccinated. He calls it “the most important thing that we can all do to ensure that our kids can be back in school.” Los Angeles Daily News.

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Have feedback? Ideas? Questions? Story tips? Email me. And keep in touch on Twitter.