Young people experiencing the body changes of puberty without being in school are facing a unique set of challenges. Here’s how parents can support them.
By Perri Klass, M.D.
A pediatrician friend saw a 10-year-old girl recently, for her yearly checkup. Like so many children (and so many adults) among us, she had gained a little extra weight over the past year, but she was fundamentally healthy. “The mom says to me, ‘You know, she’s very self-conscious, she’s developed over this last year, and none of her friends have, and it makes her so uncomfortable and it makes her sad,’” said the pediatrician, Dr. Terri McFadden, a professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.
The child had been attending virtual classes, and she was worried about going back into the classroom looking different; her mother had tried to explain to her that different people develop at different rates, Dr. McFadden said, but “she just felt she wasn’t normal, she wasn’t like her friends.”
Most of the children in Dr. McFadden’s practice have been out of school for a full year, she said, and while many are eager to return to their friends, some are anxious about going back. Many have gained a significant amount of weight, which alone can make them worried about how they may be received by their peers. “School can be cruel,” Dr. McFadden said.
While some schools have already gone back to in-person classes, circumstances vary across the country. Many children in the public school system in Atlanta, where Dr. McFadden practices, have been at home for more than a year. Some may be returning to school in bodies that have morphed over months at home, and while classmates may have noticed certain developments like a cracking voice, acne or facial hair on Zoom screens, other changes will be much more evident in person.
“I definitely have seen a lot of people with a lot of weight gain and worry about going back,” said Dr. Holly Gooding, the head of adolescent medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. She always asks teenagers how school is going, she said, and nowadays, many of them say they’ll be going back in the fall. That presents an opportunity to ask more specifically about re-entry, she said, and open up the subject of body image.
Dr. Chanelle Coble, an adolescent medicine specialist at N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine, said that young people are experiencing the body changes of puberty without the supports they would usually get from their peer group, and that is part of the general stress of the pandemic year. In her New York City practice, Dr. Coble said that she has seen higher than usual rates of severe anxiety and depression, as well as disordered eating, including among 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds.
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