Moving to secondary school can fuel negative image issues for children desperately trying to "fit in"
Priory's Dr Jasti provides top tips on how to ease the transition
Parents of 11-year-olds across the UK will have spent much of the summer holidays preparaing for their child's move to secondary school, from labelling new uniforms to buying stationery and working out the best route to the gates.
But one thing parents can overlook is how their child is actually going to cope with the culture shock of a new environment in which they may feel judged on everything from their hairstyle to their weight - worries which can result in a serious loss of confidence and self-esteem.
Parents can, and should, play a key role in helping their pre-teens navigate their personal insecurities, so they do not feel inferior or inadequate.
Dr Mahadev Jasti, Medical Director and Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester, says; "Issues surrounding body image and self-esteem are at an all-time high, and these concerns are often amplified when a young person leaves the safe and familiar environment of their primary school.
"Whilst children as young as 7 are already absorbed in the 'selfie' culture, smartphones are less common at primary schools, and this allows children a healthy phone-free zone for much of the week. However, secondary school is a different sort of environment entirely. Young people - especially girls - are starting to experiment with new hairstyles, clothes and make-up. As a result of social media, there’s also the endless temptation of commenting on, or criticising, another student's 'look'. For many 11-year-olds, this level of scrutiny is unchartered territory, and it's vital for parents and carers to keep a close eye on any insecurities that might start to set in."
A survey by the youth charity RathboneUK reported that as many as half of all schoolgirls said they had been bullied due to their appearance, with the main reasons listed as hair colour, clothing and height. Only one in five said they felt happy with how they looked. Some even reported that they suffered abuse simply for not being "able to afford the best clothes".
As well as the inevitable peer pressure (and self-imposed pressure) to fit in, body image issues can also emerge as self-conscious girls don PE kits or swimsuits around dozens of their classmates. And fund-raising days, where pupils dress in their own clothes, can be a minefield, with teenagers spending hours in front of the mirror before the school day's even started.
Coupled with a normal increase in self-awareness during the "tricky pre-teens", this is sometimes an area that parents and teachers fail to identify as a potential problem - although it is as important to address as supporting your new Year 7 with their increased homework and ensuring they don't lose their house-keys.
Priory has developed some pragmatic tips for parents and carers to help their Year 7s feel confident and positive, and get the most out of secondary school by feeling comfortable in themselves:
Emphasise personal qualities over appearance
Support your pre-teen's talents that have nothing to do with how she / he looks - like music, sports, arts, Scouts, even gaming. Show an interest in their passions and pursuits and regularly praise them.
Try not to make critical remarks about your child's body or fashion choices. Instead, compliment your child regularly as they take their first steps into the world of secondary education. Show them that you're on their side.
Be a good role model
Your pre-teen is closely watching your lifestyle, habits, and attitudes, even if they seem to cringe every time you speak. Pay attention to the example you are setting, and comments you might be making. If you're constantly criticising your own perceived flaws and worrying what others think of you, so will they.
Be aware of what's "on trend" - and choose your battles.
Whilst maintaining the mantra that life is not all about looks, recognise that it is natural for teenagers to want to wear the latest fashions and brands whilst trying to settle into a new environment. They should be allowed to embrace individual style (within the confines of a school uniform). Try not to turn every attempt your daughter makes to roll up a regulation school skirt into an all-out battle.