Back to School: How to Support your Teen through Transitions

Written by Dr. Robyn Welk-Richards from Aloria Health 

Dr. Robyn Welk-Richards is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and Clinical Therapy Director at Aloria Health. For over a decade she has worked on a national scale to masterfully care for both adults and adolescents struggling with eating disorders and other severe mental health problems. Dr. Welk-Richards brings a unique perspective to Aloria Milwaukee, but more importantly, her desire to see people become their best version of themselves is what makes her such an asset.

Students across the country are headed back to school, and this season of transition can be a time of intense experiences and emotions for parents and children alike. Especially for adolescents and teenagers, the years spent in junior high and high school can bring with them pressures and stressors that increase susceptibility to mental health issues, such as eating disorders.

Parents and caregivers can help their students be prepared to have a successful school year by creating a stable home environment and offering the necessary support to help adolescents and teenagers navigate situations that may be stressful. By anticipating stressors that may be triggered by the transition to school and during the academic year, parents can understand how to best offer support to help their children achieve a more balanced lifestyle.

Understanding Common School Stressors

Why is the return to school triggering for some students? Many adolescents today are juggling their academics with athletics and other extracurricular activities that leave little time for anything else. Following summer months which may have been much more low-key, the transition back to school along with demands to get back into a rigorous routine can be tough.

On top of this, students are facing the pressures of college preparations at younger ages, which could add to the stressors they may already be facing with academics. According to Dr. Robyn Welk-Richards, Clinical Therapy Director at Aloria Health, “[This] makes it difficult for an adolescent to remain mindful and present in the here and now, which is a huge part of the recipe for self-care and being a balanced and successful person.”

Students are not only held to high standards academically throughout the school year but also face competition amongst their own peers in a myriad of ways – including how they dress and look to their performance in sports, relationships, friend circles, and more. Whether a teen is aware of it or not, the combination of these factors can contribute to added stress during a school year.

What might be signs parents should look out for from a teen who is feeling the pressure from these various transitions?

Signs a Teen May Need Support

The reality is that many adolescents and teens might not directly communicate when they’re struggling or feeling overwhelmed with the pressures from school. More commonly, a student may begin to show disturbances in other normal aspects of their lives, including their hygiene, relatability, eating and/or sleeping habits. Challenges in school can erupt as an unbalanced lifestyle. What might this look like in a teen?

Dr. Welk-Richards notes, “So much of having a successful experience in high school, and overall quality of life is ensuring balance – balance in one’s social life with their own alone time, balance between demands put upon them and the wants and desires that student might have, as well as balance with personal hygiene- sleep, eating, and exercise. When these get off balance it not only can be an indicator that the individual is overwhelmed or stressed but it also produces more emotional vulnerability.”

Parents who might observe their child having difficulty maintaining balance with the various aspects of their lives should use this as an opportunity to openly invite a conversation with their child and make what is of concern speakable. “It is not our role as a parent to be the fixer of struggles, but rather, to be present when our children struggle and hold them, tangibly and symbolically, through the struggle,” observes Dr. Welk-Richards.

Risks for Eating Disorders

For some adolescents and teenagers, the stressors experienced in the transition to school can be a contributing trigger for an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa, are prevalent among adolescents, with research suggesting that approximately half a million teens struggle with these mental illnesses [1]. The onset of anorexia nervosa most commonly occurs around the same time as puberty, which for many adolescents, is experienced during junior/high school years.

The transition from middle to high school and high school to college can be among the most vulnerable time periods for the onset of an eating disorder. Adolescents and teens are also experiencing significant changes in their environment, in their circle of friends, with their sexuality and changing interests. Biologically, these transitional times coincide with hormonal and body changes that occur with puberty. Eating disorders can develop as a means of creating a sense of control when one’s surrounding environment feels chaotic. “ It is a time in a person’s life that everything can feel discombobulated and a pivotal time that a person is seeking stability,” notes Dr. Welk-Richards

Being aware of early warning signs can help parents intervene should their adolescent or teen be struggling with an eating disorder. Some of the common signs that should warrant close attention and monitoring by parents may include the following:

● Mood changes
● Loss of appetite
● Increased awareness of body size and/or shape
● Fatigue, Lack of energy
● Change in sleep patterns
● Lack of social engagement, isolation
● Engaging in more risk-taking behaviors
● Changes in eating habits, such as restricting certain food groups or trying fad diets
● Weight fluctuations
● Appearing unwell or in poor health

Family meals may give parents an opportunity to observe any changes in eating habits that might be concerning. For example, if a teen is avoiding having dinner with family members on an ongoing basis or is avoiding eating specific foods/food groups, this could be indicative of a more problematic eating issue. “A parent might also notice their son or daughter engaging in more risky behaviors that can suggest emotional distress, yet on the flip side isolation and a lack of engagement socially can be an indicator that something is going on emotionally,” adds Dr. Welk-Richards. Being in tune with these shifts in adolescents and teens is an important way for parents to help their child who may be struggling.

Helping Your Child Be Successful

The good news is that parents can have a positive influence in supporting their adolescent or teenager towards successful transitions. Among the important ways parents can help are implementing consistent routines within the home to offer structure and balance, especially during transition times. When it comes to the basics, like eating, sleeping, studying, and resting – teens will do better when healthy boundaries are set in place.

For example, parents might enforce designated times for family meals and encourage restful sleep patterns by setting expectations around curfews. This can also be applied to technology use and the creation of intentional recreational time, where children are allowed space to relax between the busy demands of their schedules. Keeping the entire family on the same routine can help a teenager feel more supported as well as resemble a model of a balanced lifestyle.

As Dr. Welk-Richards describes, “Individuals become highly vulnerable to stress and emotions when their life is not balanced with good personal hygiene.” Building a foundation of routines and structure at home can help a teenager who is experiencing stressors associated with transitions.

Most importantly, parents can empower their adolescents and teenagers to embrace change in a positive manner that supports their growth and strengthens their overall well-being. As Dr. Welk-Richards shares in her encouragement for parents preparing to send their teens back to school, “High school can really be such an amazing time for your son or daughter to find themselves. They are going to be inundated with so many messages good and bad and as a parent the most important thing we can do is to be present and genuinely validate their experiences as real!”

If you are the parent of an adolescent or teenager who may be struggling with an eating disorder, please connect with us today. At Aloria Health, we are proud to offer compassionate and comprehensive care to bring healing to your entire family.

Highlighted Therapist: Robyn Welk-Richards, PhD, MSW, LCSW, CEDS-S, is a doctorate-level Licensed Clinical Social Work and serves as the Clinical Therapy Director at Aloria Health. With 13+ years of dedicated work to the eating disorder community, Dr. Robyn is passionate about using her knowledge and experience to better nurture the eating disorder population. As a wife, mother, and clinician, Dr. Robyn is committed to working hard to practice what she preaches in every given moment.


[1]: National Eating Disorder Association, “General Statistics”, Accessed 25 August 2018