Part of your responsibility as a parent is to teach your children how to lead healthy lives. The best time to start teaching these lessons to children is when they’re young, before unhealthy choices become lifelong bad habits. When you want to pass on healthy habits to your kids, it’s important to practice what you preach. Just telling your kids what to do won’t necessarily work—they need to see you choosing healthy behaviors too.
The following are some ways to help your kids avoid unhealthy behaviors.
Poor nutrition and lack of physical activity
Children in the United States are gaining more weight than ever before. They’re eating too much high-fat, high-sugar food and are spending less time being physically active. Weight problems that develop during childhood can lead to weight-related illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
What can I do?
- Pay attention to the kinds of food you buy. Limit the amount of "junk food" your kids eat. Have plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables available. Be aware even "low-fat" foods may include unwanted ingredients such as added sugar.
- Serve a variety of healthy foods and use appropriate portion sizes. Use the label on the package to determine what a portion is for a particular food.
- Encourage your child to drink plenty of water or milk instead of fruit juice, sugar-sweetened fruit drinks, regular-calorie soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened or flavored milk, sweetened iced tea.
- Limit the amount of time your children spend watching television, using the computer or playing video games to a maximum of 2 hours per day. Encourage physical activity, such as a sport your child enjoys, instead.
- Eat meals and snacks together, as a family, at the table and not in front of the television.
- Make physical activity part of your family’s routine. Take a walk, visit the community pool or go for a bike ride together. Encourage your children to participate in extracurricular activities. Team sports and martial arts, while helpful to develop a child’s growth and self esteem, do not provide enough aerobic activity to lose weight, so find other activities to add to their day.
Tobacco, alcohol and other drugs
Kids may become curious about drugs at a young age. In fact, many children have already tried alcohol and marijuana by the time they reach middle school. Studies have shown the sooner you start talking to your kids about the dangers of using tobacco, drinking alcohol and using other drugs, the more likely it is that they will avoid them.
What can I do?
- Make it clear your children are not allowed to smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco, drink alcohol or use other drugs. Establish clear consequences if these rules are broken.
- Explain why these substances are harmful. Encourage them to ask questions. A true story may get your children’s attention more effectively than facts and statistics alone. Give real-life examples of people who have experienced negative consequences from using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.
- Talk to your children about peer pressure. Role-playing can prepare them to say no if they are offered cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, alcohol or other drugs.
- Know your children’s friends and their friends’ parents. Always ask your kids where they’re going, what they’re doing, who will be there, when they will return and how you can reach them. Let other parents know the rules you expect your children to follow.
- Set a good example. Pay attention to how your behaviors may affect your children. For example, when they see you using tobacco, it may send them the message it’s okay for them to use tobacco, too.
Risky sexual behavior
Each year, approximately 1 million teenage girls will become pregnant. Three million teens will get a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Even though it may seem embarrassing, you need to talk to your children about the risks and responsibilities of being sexually active. Don’t simply depend on the sexual education taught in schools. You play an important role in helping your kids understand sex in terms of love, intimacy and respect, as well as how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease.
What can I do?
- Offer age-appropriate information. A good rule of thumb to follow with younger children is to answer questions about sex when they bring them up. With an older child, you can discuss STIs and other risks of being sexually active and how to minimize those risks. It’s important to talk about this even if your expectation is that your children are not sexually active.
- Be honest with your children about your family's values, opinions and expectations about sex. You may want to ask your family doctor for help in talking to your children. He or she can also provide you with information and facts to share with your children.
- Think about the sexual messages your children get in school, on television or in movies. Talk to your children about these messages and encourage them to ask questions.
- Keep an open mind. If your children are afraid of how you will react, they’ll be less likely to talk to you when they are feeling pressured, unsure or concerned about issues relating to sex.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff