For any kid to grow into a healthy adult, at some point they have to start to care about the things they eat, how they move, how they handle stress, and how they manage their emotions. Together these things make up "health competency," or the awareness, knowledge, and behaviors that lead to a healthy life.
So how do we foster a child's interest and personal investment in their health?
Step One: Information
Most kids are naturally fascinated with how the body works. From breaking down food in the gut to the amazing way our nervous systems can store new memories, our bodies are incredible, and kids get that. Unfortunately, many kids grow up with little more than a shadowy understanding of what organs they have, much less where the are, how they work, or how they relate to each other. Making sure kids understand the basics of how the body works lays the groundwork for fostering lifelong health competency.
For a child or adolescent to be truly invested in healthy living, they have to understand why it benefits them. This may be as simple as talking to them about symptoms they get when they eat foods that they're allergic to (“Remember how last time you had soy you got that itchy rash?”) or it may involve more complex conversations, such as stress management and its long-term effect on happiness and health.
For kids that need medications, specific diets, or supplements to stay healthy, explaining the basic mechanism of those therapies can help kids feel committed to their regimens - and to make connections to issues they may have when they go off track. For example, a teen taking a probiotic for psoriasis may be more likely to take these daily if she knows that probiotics help reduce inflammation and permeability in her gut, which in turn makes her psoriasis less likely to flare up.
Step Two: The Joy of Health
We often spend a lot of time talking about the bad things that can happen if a child isn’t making healthy choices. But what about the good? Focusing on all of the joys of healthy living - the strength and energy that come from moving your body, the brightness that comes from eating fresh, wholesome food, and the deep peace that comes from a healthy emotional state can make all of their hard work really seem worth it. Helping kids think like this can also encourage the long term habits of keeping a positive perspective and having gratitude for their bodies and their health.
Step Three: Choice
Step Four: Encouragement and Boundaries
For some kids, a little praise and encouragement can go a long way in helping them feel an immediate “pay off” for healthy living. Who doesn’t like a pat on the back? Making sure that positive changes are seen, recognized, and taken into account is very important for a lot of kids - and it helps them know when they are on the right track.
While the chance to safely make mistakes is an important part of developing inner strength and confidence, all kids need honest feedback and guidance. Parents can act as a mirror for kids to notice downturns in their health and make adjustments. For example, simple statements such as “I noticed that you seem a lot more anxious since you started eating sweets more often. Do you think that could be affecting your mood?” can help a teen make connections between what they eat and how they feel. In younger kids, narrowing down their choices to all healthy options while still allowing them to choose is an important part of creating a healthy and safe home environment.
Further Tools and Resources