With school starting back up, parents are readying themselves for the late night homework, last minute projects and endless loads of laundry that it brings with it.
However, this time of year also marks a return of some difficulties children might be facing, such as bullying and body image issues. Creating a safe and encouraging environment for kids when it comes to body image is essential, and Psychotherapist Colman Noctor joined the Jennifer Zamparelli show to share his tips for doing so.
Knowing how to talk to children about their own weight and body image can be tricky, but Noctor says that children are getting "older, younger".
He says that in the past he worked with children with eating disorders, and adds that he would see this happen often in first and second year secondary school students. "In the last five or six years, you're probably seeing it in fifth or sixth class."
Talking to children and teenagers about this is different, he says. "If the child is underweight and has no observable issues and they're concerned about weight, I would be thinking about red flags in that regard. Other children may be struggling with their weight, may want to do something about it.
"Always, the emphasis has to be on health, not weight."
He says that "our body image is directly related to how we feel."
"Our body is a signpost to a problem. It may not be the problem." With this in mind, Noctor says that if a child finds something about their body image problematic, there's "something they're overwhelmed by".
"They want to control something, and the first thing we think to control is food, weight and shape because the magazines, the influencers and everything tells us 'skinny and happy. Eat less, move more equals happiness.'"
In this way, he says, children and teens are very like adults, and he often suggests parents look at their own approach to body image and whether they're reflecting something back to their children.
"I think what's really important is that we don't demonise food. Good and bad foods, this ridiculous conversation. There's no such thing as good and bad foods. There's good and bad amounts of food. A Mars bar is fine, but three or four of them a day before breakfast is not. It's about portions."
This, he says, "creates a fear within the child".
The food and diet industry is too large to be expected to change overnight, but Noctor says "you can measure your conversations around your children".
"The pressure on teenagers is getting greater because there's much more of a focus on the body now." He recalls talking to a group of teens who were heading to a disco recently. "The girls, there was fake tan, there were nails. They were saying that the more makeup you had, the older you looked, the better it would be."
This pressure was coming from their peers, he noticed. "The pressure around looking older creates what's called a maturity fear, this is a thing a lot of young people will experience, especially girls." As they start moving into more mature realms of growing up, they start to think it's too much, too fast.
"Starvation can stop the growing process, so you're stopping the menstrual process, you're stopping development. It's almost an attempt to put a pause button on a world that you feel is moving too fast."
During Covid in particular, conversations around food became more prevalent, Noctor says.
If your child is struggling with healthy weight, Noctor suggests encouraging them to make changes healthily. Encouraging doesn't mean nagging, however, and comes down to going for a walk with them rather than telling them to do it.
He says you can make it about the family at large rather than "personalising" it.
If your child isn't overweight but still is expressing body image concerns, it's about talking to them about "body size", Noctor says. "Children sometimes confuse growing up and getting older with getting overweight, because they see the kilograms going up."
Noctor also suggests making sure they're buying clothes that are comfortable, fit well and make the child feel secure in their body image. "There's a comfort in baggy clothes", he says.
To listen back to the full interview, click here.
If you have been affected by issues raised in this story, please visit: www.rte.ie/helplines.