Back to School: A Dangerous Transition?

written by Shari Rogers, LCSW, Therapist, Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Change is a part of life. As adults, we know that things rarely remain the same.

Conversely, normal transitions can be perceived of quite differently and far more negatively by young people. This is primarily due to the simple fact that they are young; a girl of 12 or 13, even 17 and 18, just hasn’t lived that long.

Unfortunately, two key transitions—entering high school and entering college can prove dangerous, even highly damaging to certain females.

For most girls, life proves fairly predictable through elementary school; even if a junior high offers a change, it is usually not too dramatic. High school is different for a variety of reasons. Typically, several schools feed into a freshman class; therefore there are whole new groups of kids to adapt to.  Keep in mind that this is a key maturational time for girls, in that most of them are rapidly moving into puberty. This means their bodies are changing in unexpected ways. Commensurately, their emotions are thrown into a tailspin due to hormone fluctuations. High drama can be the rule, not the exception.

If a girl has been taught healthy coping skills, she will weather this temporary storm; if not, she easily becomes fertile ground for an eating disorder. Knowing that at the heart of a food-related disorder is the need to control and cope with turbulent feelings, beginning to restrict or binge and purge can mitigate emotional chaos. Especially with the former approach of reducing food intake, there is the added benefit of weight loss, which seemingly many young girls want these days.

With the exception of puberty no longer being relevant, the transition to college can be even more traumatic. This is often the first time a young woman has lived away from home. Everything is new:  friends, dorm life, meals, environment, to say nothing of increased academic pressures. Without parental support, she can easily move into bad habits, especially where food is concerned.

No matter the school or region of the country, female students are keenly aware of the feared “freshmen 15”. No one wants to validate that stereotype. It is no wonder that female college students, particularly in sororities, teach each other how to use eating disorder behaviors.

With a new school year just starting, it is important for parents, school counselors, even primary care physicians to be mindful of how transitions are proceeding with girls and young women. If a girl appears to be highly stressed due to peers or life at a new school, this should be addressed. If parents get the sense that a daughter is not adapting well to college life, a visit might be planned.

Two things are true about eating disorders. The first is that they work. This is difficult for many people to understand; nevertheless, it is true. Whether a girl is starving herself or a young woman is bingeing and/or purging, the behavior is serving a purpose: her stress and anxiety are reduced, she is finding it easier to cope. The second thing is that the early an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of a complete and lasting recovery.