Jewish Journal


September 23, 2010

Create healthy habits for teen years and beyond


As kids get older, their physical and emotional needs change. But parents often find that the children who once listened to rules are now more difficult to reach with guidelines for healthy behavior.

As they become young adults, teens spend less time at home and expect more privacy and independence. But that doesn’t mean parents need to back off — in fact, by paying attention to their teens’ changing lives and keeping the lines of communication open, mom and dad can be strong positive influences in helping their children develop healthy habits that they’ll carry into adulthood.

One area that changes drastically during adolescence is nutrition. Adolescents typically have busy schedules, and it’s hard for parents to control what their kids eat when they’re out of the house.

Additionally, middle and high school students often begin to eat in accordance with how they want to look. They may take up dieting to lose weight or try to eat more to gain muscle mass. On the other hand, childhood obesity is on the rise: In a report released in June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 18 percent of kids ages 12-19 are obese, up from 5 percent in 1980.

With such conflicting concerns, ensuring that teens get the vitamins and sustenance they need can be tough.

David Heber, a professor of medicine and the director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, suggests that a good place to start is with regular, frequent meal times.

“There is a lot of information that says eating four to five times a day, smaller meals, is a great idea,” Heber said.

Boys and girls alike need diets rich in protein, calcium and vitamin D for healthy bone and muscle growth. Heber suggests incorporating lean protein, like egg whites, fish or chicken, into every meal, and keeping healthy snacks, like fruits, veggies and cottage cheese stocked around the house.

In terms of junk food — which might seem nearly impossible to pry out of a teen’s hands — it’s all about portion control. As long as pizza, chips and soda don’t become an everyday habit, Heber said, it’s nothing to worry about.

“I think when it becomes a regular part of the daily diet, it becomes a big concern,” he said. “If it’s just something they have with their friends on the weekends, that’s probably OK.”

Along with eating well, teens need to get enough sleep in order to function properly and to meet their bodies’ changing needs. While pre-pubescent children are programmed to fall asleep around 8 or 9 p.m., as kids get older their internal clocks change, and they begin to get tired later.

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that once they hit puberty, kids need between 8 1/2 and 9 1/4 hours of sleep each night. But extracurricular activities, schoolwork and social obligations may cause them to skimp on those critical ZZZs:

“Oftentimes, [teens] might be in a school where there is way too much homework,” said David Swanson, a clinical psychologist in Encino and author of “Help — My Kid Is Driving Me Crazy.” “They get home at 3:30 or 4 p.m. and are up until 11 p.m. [working].”

Missing out on sleep can make it harder to concentrate in school and more likely that teens will snap at their parents, teachers or friends. Keeping a regular bedtime can help ensure the right amount of shut-eye, as can establishing a relaxing evening routine, like taking a bath or shower and limiting caffeine consumption late in the day.

Another burgeoning issue as teens go through puberty is their sexual health. Many parents grapple with how and when to bring up the subjects of dating, relationships and healthy sexuality with young people. And not without reason: A report published in January 2005 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to health-related research and information distribution, found that approximately 47 percent of American high school students have had sex at least once.

Emerging sexuality and all the feelings that go with it, though, are normal parts of human development, says Diane Medsker, the director of school and parent programs at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles.

“Young people are in that transition period from being a child to an adult,” she said. “They begin to experience not just the physical changes but different feelings, longings for more independence, sexual urges, the longing for a different kind of intimacy.”

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit organization devoted to lowering the rates of unplanned pregnancies among young people, the best way for parents to help their teens make safe decisions about sex and relationships is by fostering open communication. In a report published in 2004, the organization found that 45 percent of teens cite parents as their biggest influence in making decisions about sex, and that teens who are able to talk to their parents about sex are more likely to delay intercourse. 

Medsker suggests that parents begin talking to their children about relationships, dating and sex as soon as questions arise. Answers can be very brief and straightforward at a younger age, she says, and become more in-depth as kids get older. 

And, she adds, talking about healthy sexuality involves much more than a conversation about the birds and the bees.

“Sex is a really important part of the conversation, but [there are also] a lot of issues that relate to sex or are surrounding sex,” she said. “Feelings, changes, dating, what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, what is normal, what are values — these are things that are just as important.”

Open lines of communication between parents and teens are critical and affect more than just decisions about relationships — they can also help parents recognize if something is wrong with their teen.

If a teen is suddenly difficult to talk with or to reach, Swanson says, or if they lose interest in activities, gain or lose weight suddenly, or start doing poorly in school, it might be an indication of a more serious problem like depression or drug use, and it’s time to seek professional help.

Otherwise, he suggests tactics parents can employ to get their kids to open up.

One idea is to a set time to talk each week, says Swanson, adding that sundown is a good option: “When the sun goes down, it makes people open up, and there are far [fewer] distractions,” he said. From there, try to listen and share — without being judgmental.

Swanson adds that good information about health should come in short, digestible tidbits. Pick a few key points, he says, and repeat them — in the car, over dinner — until the teen responds with “I know, I know” and repeats them back to you. “Then,” he said, “[you] know the message has been internalized.”

And as most parents know, children learn by watching. To that end, says Swanson, healthy habits in teens begin with healthy habits in parents.

“What you say will not be nearly as impactful as what you do,” he said.

The teen years can be challenging, but they can also be exciting. And by talking, listening and modeling good behavior, parents can help their kids maintain good health throughout their adolescence and beyond.

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