Healthy habits start with you

Posted on 31 December 2019

The most powerful way to teach your child healthy habits for life is to model healthy behaviours says an expert at Mediclinic. 

“It is more impactful to lead by example instead of just talking to your child about the consequences of unhealthy habits,” says Dr Tanya Boshoff, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Potchefstroom. And it’s important to be consistent. “Children are impressionable and are likely to mimic your behaviour.”

  • A home environment that is constantly stressful can affect the emotional wellbeing of a child and the child can become very stressed/anxious. A child needs routine and consistency and through this they feel emotionally secure.
  • A parent’s parenting style also plays a role in the emotional development of a child.
  • Peers play an important role in a teen’s life. To ‘fit in’ and be part of the group may often influence the teens to also experiment with substances.
  • Adolescents often experiment with cigarettes right through to street drugs. This may increase their risk for behaviours such as impaired driving, unsafe sexual practices and even increase their aggression levels.
  • Thus, with the continued use of drugs, alcohol or cigarettes – this may put the child at risk of developing a substance-use disorder. But this also interferes with the child’s development wrt psychosocial skills in their young adulthood phase.
  • The child may develop a psychological dependence in which they feel they need the substance to function adequately; whilst physical dependence is when the child’s body adapts to the substances which are constantly present and a tolerance starts to develop in which the child starts needing more of the substance to experience an effect.
  • Substance-use disorders (SUDs) involve the self-administration of any substances such as alcohol, cannabis, inhalants, opioids, tobacco etc. and these may alter their mood, perception or brain functioning. This will then result in substance abuse.

Make good food choices

If you snack on junk food – and frequently opt for take-aways as your go-to option for family meals –  you’re unwittingly teaching your child that foods high in sodium, fat and sugar are desirable. “Children learn by example and if you aren’t making the correct food decisions, it is almost impossible for your child to make better choices,” says Jeske Wellmann, a dietician at Mediclinic Sandton. Unstructured eating during the day also affects your child’s appetite for healthy supper options as they get satiated by junk food. “Remember, even if you’re making sure that your kids are getting the best nutrition possible, they will remember your own food choices when they’re old enough to make decisions for themselves,” says Dr Boshoff. Weekly meal planning to avoid last-minute junk fests – and prepping meals together as a family – are two ways to improve your eating habits.

Get active

If you never engage in outdoor pursuits (such as hiking, swimming or cycling) as a family, you are missing the opportunity to demonstrate to your child how fun being active can be. And if you always flop on the couch after a long day at work, consider how your child interprets this behaviour. Even though it might seem more relaxing to spend weekends lazing around at home, getting active will boost your endorphins and give you more energy in the long run. Regular physical activity strengthens your child’s muscles and bones, prevents unhealthy weight gain, and reduces their risk of diabetes, cancer, and other conditions. “Exercise can also improve your child’s ability to cope with stress, can improve their concentration skills and help regulate their emotions,” says Dr Boshoff.

Moderation is key

Even if you have a glass of wine most evenings, you can still set a good example. “There’s no reason to hide a beer from your child’s view if you’re drinking moderately and responsibly – but there’s no need to glamorise alcohol either,” says Dr Boshoff. Avoid using phrases like: “Mommy needs a drink” to ensure you aren’t sending the message that stress or anxiety can be cured by alcohol. Take time to explain the harmful effects excess alcohol has on the body and make it clear that drinking should be treated as an occasional indulgence, much like ice cream. “Using alcohol and drugs indiscriminately may put your child at risk for developing a substance-use disorder,” says Dr Boshoff. “It also interferes with your child’s development when it comes to psychosocial skills in their young adulthood phase. If they see you repeatedly reach for alcohol when you are sad, tired, stressed or angry, they may adopt your coping mechanism and feel they need the substance to function adequately.”

According to research by Silveri et. Al, (2011 and 2016), when a child is in a family with a history of alcoholism, the adolescent may inherit certain brain structures as well as functional abilities from either one or both parents and there is evidence that there is a greater activation in the frontolimbic areas of the brain.  The research adds that such an activation may result in poor inhibitions and it will reduce their ability to inhibit risk-taking behaviours.  The adolescent is therefore more prone to risk-taking behaviours such as engaging in substance use.

Yap et. al. (2017) indicates that there are three parenting risk factors which may affect teenagers regarding alcohol and drug use:

  • Parents providing alcohol to the child
  • A parent who has a favourable attitude towards alcohol
  • Parents drinking

However, there are four protective factors that can help decrease the teenager’s risk of engaging in substance use:

  • A parent who monitors and is present in a child’s life – thus, communication is at a good level
  • Parent-child relationship quality
  • Parents who are supportive
  • Parents who are involved in the child’s life

It is therefore important to not, as parents, do things in secret – i.e. drink, smoke.  The message you are giving your children is to do things in secret themselves.  Just like the research says, the more involved a parent is with their children, the better the communication and the better the ability to speak about things such as peer pressure, experimenting and to help give the correct information to kids so that they don’t receive incorrect facts from their peers.

No parent is perfect, but if you try to live your best life, your child will likely follow in your footsteps. As parents, engage in healthy options such as eating healthily, not drinking too much caffeine/energy drinks (this may potentially increase your anxiety levels), exercising regularly and engaging in good family quality time. Thus, less time on technology and just being indoors and focusing more on communicating and engaging in fun activities.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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