Sixty two percent of teenagers say they feel lonely according to recent research. While many point to the negative effects of social media and the next generation spending six or more hours a day on their screens as obvious culprits, there’s a lot more at play when it comes to understanding what’s affecting our kids’ mental health and wellbeing.
In fact, what parents say, the behavior we model and how we interact with our kids has a far more significant impact on our children’s health than most people realize. As both a dad and a doctor, I’ve found a few important tips that parents can use to have meaningful conversations with their kids about their health which will inspire kids to adopt healthy lifestyle habits.
Create a Supportive Environment & Listen to Your Kids
Your mental health impacts your physical health and stress, depression and anxiety often exacerbate or aggravate physical conditions, especially in kids. Across the board, when I look at the healthiest children, I find them to be those who are supported by parents who foster open communication with their kids while at the same time, establishing healthy boundaries. In fact, this 2015 study found an “authoritative parenting style accounted for 81 children (93 percent) with positive behavior.”
This doesn’t mean becoming a helicopter parenting style or Tiger Mom—quite the opposite. It’s means encouraging and empowering your kids to pursue their own interests, whether it’s reading a book or acting in their school’s play. Perhaps your child is an introvert or doesn’t fit the gender binary. Regardless of who your kid is, the more space you give them—and the more you make it clear that your home is a safe space for them to come to you with problems—the less stress you place on your kids and the more likely they are to come to you with a health issue or concern.
Watch How You Talk about Yourself & Others
Did you know that there is a high correlation of developing eating disorders if your parent has an eating disorder? Many studies have shown that when a parent describes themselves as fat or struggles with dieting and weight loss themselves, this directly impacts their kids, their perceptions of themselves and their value system around their body image.
But how we talk about ourselves and its impact on our kids isn’t limited to eating disorders—think of how many times you’ve said something that mirrored what you heard growing up from your parents. Whether it’s stigmatizing depression and mental health or someone’s sexual behavior, how we describe ourselves and others shapes how our kids want to interact with us, open up to us and frames how they see the world.
The more conscious you are of the judgmental behavior you display, the less likely you are to create a division between you and your children.
Modeling Healthy Eating & Physical Activity
While I’ve discussed many approaches to improving parent and child relationships, communication and mental health, I can’t overstate how important it is to help your kids develop healthy eating habits and engage in regular physical activity that they enjoy. For starters, simply stocking your refrigerator with fruits and vegetables and making it a point to serve a healthy dinner can go a long way in decreasing future health risks linked to obesity like diabetes or hypertension.
Also, nearly 40 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 do not engage in regular, vigorous physical activity. Encourage your kids to go on walks with friends, pick up a sport they enjoy or go dancing.
In the meantime, model that behavior yourself, whether it’s heading to the gym a few days a week or going on a long walk during your lunch break. Or, if your family is up for it, you can make physical activities like hiking a regular family outing to stay active while having fun and building your connection.
Instead of forcing “healthy habits” or bringing up topics that make you and your kids uncomfortable, there are some simple tips that every parent can adopt to foster trust and build healthier families. By supporting your kids, listening to them, watching what you say and modeling healthy eating and physical activity, you are helping your kids develop a better relationship with you and a better lifelong relationship to their health.