As an adult, you probably already know the importance of advocating for your own health. This can take many forms, from consciously making healthier dietary choices to proactively telling your doctor about any new symptoms you experience. As a parent, you are also responsible for being a health advocate for your kids—but an essential part of this is teaching them the skills they need to become their own health advocates as they get older. Here are some ways to set your children on the path to lifelong health advocacy.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, modeling healthy behaviors is a very important part of advocating for your kids’ health. Children are always watching the adults in their lives, and their instinct is to follow your lead. So you’ll need to take stock of your relationship with health and ensure you are setting a good example. Key areas to note:
Trying to stick to a strict diet rarely works in the long run, and different popular diets may not provide enough nutrients, especially for a growing child. But healthy eating is one of the best ways to promote physical and mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that a healthy diet:
- Focuses on fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains and low-fat dairy
- Incorporates a variety of protein foods
- Minimizes unhealthy elements such as sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats
You can get more specific dietary guidelines for you and your child at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate Plan. But the most important thing to remember is that your kids are paying attention. Eat a varied and nutritional diet, limit the number of unhealthy snacks in the house, and show your kids how to incorporate small treats rather than going overboard.
Fancy coffee is big business these days, with kids and adults regularly indulging in frothy, sugary concoctions tacked with caffeine. There is nothing wrong with a moderate caffeine intake, and there may even be some health benefits. But too much caffeine isn’t good for anyone. It can cause jitters, restlessness, and anxiety. Extremely high doses can even mess with the heart’s natural rhythms.
Keep an eye on your caffeine intake and what sorts of effects it has on you. And remember that because your kids are smaller and still developing, the impacts can be multiplied. Teach them to moderate their consumption, and make sure they know that things like energy drinks contain massive amounts of caffeine.
Social interactions are vital for mental health. Families today are incredibly busy, and it’s easy to let social relationships disappear but this would be a mistake. Prioritizing loved ones is an excellent way to boost mood, increase feelings of belonging, and even hold anxiety at bay.
Socializing can also be a great way to increase your family’s physical exercise. Take everyone for a walk after dinner. Meet up with friends in the park for a Saturday afternoon soccer game. Set up play dates (or encourage older kids to schedule “hang out” times) that include working up a sweat.
Limiting screen time
Recent research shows that social media isn’t necessarily bad. Instead, people’s emotional involvement with it largely determines whether social media is beneficial or harmful. But one thing remains as inaccurate as ever: too much screen time is bad for the brain.
Model good screen time behaviors for your kids. Sit together to watch a specific show, then turn off the TV. Ask everyone to turn off their devices at least an hour before bedtime. Show your kids other ways to have fun, from board game nights to weekends at a local amusement park.
A huge part of health advocacy is communication. Your kids will need to learn to talk about what’s going on with them, first with you and then directly with their doctors and other health professionals. Practice speaking clearly, providing enough information without rambling, and asking clarifying questions.
Initiate the hard conversations with your kids. From sex to body image, kids are naturally curious and they can absorb highly damaging messages from those around them. Keep the lines of communication open, answer their questions honestly, and model healthy conversations.
Help your kids find age-appropriate, accurate information about the human body and mind. Even toddlers should know the names of body parts, to understand what’s happening when the doctor says, “I’m going to check your ears” or “Now I’ll listen to your heart.” As they age, kids should learn about basic concepts such as blood pressure, anxiety, and brain development.
Both adults and kids need to prepare for upcoming doctor’s appointments. Talk it out with your kids. Is this a sports physical? Explain why it’s important, what the doctor is looking for, and any critical information that your child needs to provide. If your child is seeing the doctor due to illness, talk about the symptoms. Help them find the right words to explain how they’re feeling. Ensure they feel comfortable advocating for their own health and wellbeing. Also, discuss any important follow-up questions they should ask, such as when to take their medications daily.
Ultimately, health advocacy is a lifelong skill. It will take a lot of practice to get it right, and even many adults still struggle to advocate for themselves. Take advantage of teaching opportunities, from reading nutrition labels to planning activities for an upcoming vacation.
Every few weeks or months, reassess your health habits to see areas that could be improved. Invite your kids to be part of this process. Ask them to assess your healthy and unhealthy behaviors and recommend improvement. You don’t necessarily have to follow all their suggestions, but helping you spot your weaknesses can make it easier for your kids to identify their own. Centering health as part of your family dynamic can help put your kids on the road to healthier choices throughout their lives.