All parents want to raise happy and healthy kids. So we serve up nutritious meals, encourage them to have a run in the backyard and remind them to brush their teeth at night. But for total wellbeing, a child also needs a healthy mind. So how do we raise a person who is mentally strong, physically fit and kind to others? Here are some key components.
TEACH THEM GRATITUDE
US research from California State University found that thankful teens were more satisfied with their lives than less appreciative teens. The four-year study found the most grateful were 17 per cent happier than the least grateful. In that time, they also experienced a 13 per cent drop in negative emotions. “This suggests that gratitude may be linked with life skills,” says lead researcher Giacomo Bono.
What You Can Do
“Infants as young as 15 months old are able to understand the concept of gratitude, even before they learn to speak properly. So parents should start inculcating these values as early as possible,” stresses Dr Lim Boon Leng, Consultant Psychiatrist from Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness. “Teach them to show appreciation in their conversations by always saying ‘thank you’. Let them help out with chores and earn the things they want, such as toys,” suggests Dr Lim.
BIN NEGATIVE FOOD MESSAGES
Having a positive relationship with food will not only help your child maintain a healthy weight, it will safeguard their mental health too. Children who binge eat are not only more likely to be overweight, they are twice as likely to become depressed, reports the US journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Binge eating is overeating without control. “Parents need to tell their children that food is to be enjoyed, not feared,” says psychologist Jennifer Garth. “When a child starts to feel guilty or anxious around food, they’re more susceptible to becoming chronic dieters or falling into bad eating habits.”
What You Can Do
“Teach them that food is energy, but to take pleasure in delicious food,” says Jennifer. “Don’t label it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or use it to reward or punish your child. Don’t use food to comfort them or they will reach for it when they feel down. Instead, help your child to listen to their body. Teach them to eat slowly so there’s time for their hunger signals to kick in. If they’re overeating, say, ‘Have you had enough?’ rather than ‘You’ve had enough.’” Eating together regularly will also give your child’s mental health a lift, reports a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. “More family dinners lead to greater emotional well-being, more helpful behaviour towards others and higher life satisfaction,” says study co-author Frank Elgar.
TRAIN THEM TO CARE
An empathetic child might be said to have a big heart, but he or she is more likely to have a healthier one too. A University of British Columbia study found that students aged between 15 and 18 years old, who spent one hour a week helping younger students in after-school programmes, had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol, and lower BMIs (BMI = Body Mass Index) after 10 weeks than those students who hadn’t done so. “The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy and altruistic behavior were the ones who also saw the greatest improvement in their cardiovascular health,” says study researcher Hannah Schreiser.
What You Can Do
“Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others and use this information to guide both your own emotions and behaviour,” explains Dr Lim. “This helps you deal with problems and difficulties better. Children who embody the most empathy are also often seen as leaders by their peers.” How can we best develop empathy in our children? “The first thing is to simply recognize that empathy is a skill that has to be learnt. Start by teaching the child to identify his or her own feelings. Parents often assume that children will spontaneously learn about their own feelings and moods. However, a parent actually plays a big role in identifying these feelings and moods and reflecting these back to the child to help him or her learn,” says Dr Lim. “Once the child is about four to five years old, they are able to understand hypothetical scenarios as well. So storytelling and discussions are great ways to impart empathy. Try teaching your child to empathise with the characters in the story,” adds Dr Lim.
HELP THEM COPE WITH STRESS
Our first instinct might be to shield our kids from stressful situations, and not teach them resilience. This can be detrimental to their wellbeing. A recent study found children who avoided stressful situations, like making a speech, were even more anxious a year later compared to those who faced their fears. Being resilient could also help keep their weight in check. A study published in the journal Appetite found children who react poorly to stress have higher BMIs and tend to eat when not hungry compared to children who don’t get as frazzled.
What You Can Do
“Be patient, available and prepared to listen to your child. Sometimes children are reluctant to approach adults for fear that they may not listen or will judge them. Remain approachable so that your child will be more likely to seek help and learn problem-solving skills from you,” suggests Dr Lim. “It is also important to spend time with your child to strategise and learn from past mistakes. Go over the mistake in a non-judgmental way, and discuss possible solutions with your child,” he adds. “A healthy lifestyle and exercise routine are also key to psychological wellness and stress management.”
AND DON’T FORGET TO… Be Serious About Sleep
Setting a bedtime routine, and sticking to it, teaches children the value of getting a good night’s sleep. Bad sleeping habits have been linked to a greater risk of high cholesterol and blood pressure in teens, along with greater increases in their BMIs. Children need about 10 hours and teens eight hours of sleep a night, with computers and phones turned off at least an hour before lights out to help their bodies wind down properly.
Text: Bauer/Good Health/Additional Reporting: Candy Lim