You don’t have to cast your mind back all that far to remember what it felt like to be a teenager. To live in a strong, agile, flexible body that felt virtually indestructible. To live in a world where consequence seemed an abstract concept that was far in the distance rather than a spectre that lurked around every corner. To feel as though a bright and promising future was just around the corner, ready to shower you with the gifts of wealth, popularity and good fortune that you totally deserved.
As we get older, we call this boundless optimism the arrogance of youth. But it’s actually a well established neurological phenomenon. The adolescent brain’s orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is not fully developed, and this has been linked to the impulsive, risk-taking and potentially risky behaviors that seem like great ideas in our teenage years. Plus, when we’re in our teen years we can write a lot of checks that our bodies will have to cash later. So what if we smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and eat our bodyweight in fast food? We won’t have to deal with the consequences for years!
Of course, it’s only a matter of time until years of unhealthy choices catch up with former reckless teens. This is why it can be so frustrating for parents to watch their teens make choices that may lead to lasting health issues. And today’s teenagers face potentially even more dangers: in addition to the same temptations and hurdles that their parents’ faced at their age, today’s teens must navigate the perils and pitfalls of growing up in a digitally interconnected age.
In today’s world, the consequences of actions and evidence of impulsive mistakes can remain in the digital realm to haunt teens in perpetuity, potentially affecting future relationships and opportunities. As parents, it’s natural that we worry about every aspect of their physical, mental and emotional health, especially when we see that they’re less concerned than we are. But how do we encourage healthier behaviors?
An uncomfortable- but important- conversation
Most of us don’t relish the idea of navigating serious conversations with our teens, especially when it includes some form of instruction. No teen enjoys being told what to do any more than their parents enjoy arguing with them about rules. But when we see our teens neglecting their wellbeing, it’s essential to start a conversation about developing healthier habits. Studies show that bad health habits developed during teenage years can result in poorer overall health in adulthood. For this reason, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your teen about how to properly care for their health.
There are many different facets of health, the most obvious likely being physical health. It’s easier to detect changes in your teen’s physical health, and they probably have a better understanding of the different ways their lifestyle choices will impact their physical well-being than emotional well-being, for example.
For instance, you may notice your teen neglects their personal hygiene in ways that can be both seen and smelled, and want to start a conversation about regularly showering, doing laundry, and wearing deodorant. Again, the bad habits we develop in our younger years can follow us into our adult life. And when it comes to poor personal hygiene, at best it can inhibit social interaction and at worst it can lead to serious infections. Teens need to understand that their bodies are walking rainforests of bacteria and fungi.
The body does a pretty good job of keeping itself clean in most ways, but it still needs a helping hand with regular washing. Especially in intimate areas; otherwise, conditions like bacterial vaginosis can occur. At the same time, however, when we wash ourselves too much or wash with too much zeal it can lead to dry skin or conditions like thrush. For this reason, you probably need to have a chat with your teen about developing quality hygienic habits early on.
Beyond basic hygiene habits, physical health encompasses a lot of critical bodily functions such as sleep and weight regulation. Breaking down the different ways you teen can care for themselves will give them the information and understanding they need to prioritize their health in all aspects of their life.
Being young doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re bursting with energy all the time. In fact, you may notice that your teen often seems lethargic, distracted, or irritable. All of these are signs that they may not be getting enough sleep. Believe it or not, a teenage body needs more sleep than a 10 year old’s. For optimal health, they should be getting between nine and ten hours every night. If you see your teen taking extra naps or sleeping in when they get the chance, hesitate to assume they’re being lazy. Their bodies are still growing and changing, and today’s teens are under loads of stress and may need a break once in a while.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that the life of a 21st century teenager is hardly conducive to sleep. Their reliance on their smartphones and other devices sees them virtually bathed in blue light on a daily basis. Light of this frequency can inhibit the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin and thus disrupt your teen’s circadian rhythms, preventing them from feeling tired when they really need sleep, and further keeping them from falling asleep. Furthermore, many teens are so busy between school, homework, extracurricular activities, sports, hobbies, part-time jobs, and growing social lives that they struggle to balance their responsibilities with a healthy sleep schedule.
Academic responsibilities alone can be overwhelming: school starts early, after school activities may go until the evening, and maintaining good grades on top of potentially applying for college can keep a teen up late. Because their growing bodies and minds rely on sleep for healthy development, emphasizing the necessity of sleep to your teen is critical. Try helping them make a study schedule and plan out ways to balance their responsibilities if you notice them sacrificing sleep. You might even have a conversation about scaling back their responsibilities if it is taking a toll on their health. Make sure to emphasize that they should never feel like they have to sacrifice their health to achieve academic goals. Adolescence takes a huge toll on the human body, and a good night’s sleep is absolutely essential.
Oh to have a teenager’s metabolism again! To be able to seemingly eat whatever you want, when you want––with nary a pound gained. While your teen may eat like a horse, yet remain slender, that doesn’t mean that their bodies are healthy on the inside. Teens who lack an awareness of nutrition can over-indulge in high-sugar or processed foods and meats, which are identified by the World Health Organization as Type 1 carcinogens. That’s the same group as cigarettes! Sure, they may not see the effects of a bad diet in terms of weight gain, but they may see them in changing skin (more on that later) and lowered energy levels.
Developing healthy eating habits can be challenging in a world where fast food and unhealthy options are plentiful, but you can help steer your teen in the right direction by exposing them to healthy, tasty alternatives at home. By limiting the amount of junk foods and sodas available in your home, you help nudge your teen in the right direction. Encourage them to help you cook meals for the family so they develop both an appreciation for the work you do in the kitchen and a love for cooking. Exposing your teen to food from a variety of cultures will also help them develop a diverse palette and avoid becoming a picky eater.
An awareness of nutrition is one of the most useful gifts you can give your teen. Make sure to talk to them about the different types of vitamins, minerals, fats, and sugars in the foods they eat, and help them find a balance between tasty and healthy. Sooner or later, their metabolism will slow down. And the longer bad habits persist, the harder it can be to break them. Bad dietary habits in teen years can lead to a lifetime of obesity, increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. Educating your teen on dietary health will play a major role in their long-term well-being.
Along with their diet, you should have conversations with your teen about regular exercise to stay healthy. Perhaps you already model an active lifestyle, or maybe those days are behind you. Either way, making sure your teen takes time to get outside and prioritize their physical health is crucial. Many teens are naturally active, having young and resilient bodies, and enjoying engaging in physical activity. Perhaps your teen is already active in school or club sports, regularly goes to a gym, or likes to go on walks or runs outside. Encouraging this behavior will validate their passions and help them stay healthy.
If you worry they may not be getting enough activity in their day, you aren’t alone. The prevalence of technology these days can contribute to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Or your teen may simply be too busy with academics and work to exercise. In these situations, it can be helpful to suggest easy, fun ways for both of you to get moving. Inviting them on a stroll around the neighborhood or suggesting a bike ride to a nearby park can be a good way to spend time together while taking care of your bodies. And with any activity they choose to engage in, make sure they are following health and safety precautions. Encourage them to drink lots of water, stretch before and after activity, and stay within their body’s limits. Developing these healthy exercise habits young will pay off later in life.
A sometimes overlooked facet of health is optical health. While many adults wear some form of corrective lenses, many teens are not used to needing contacts or glasses. Your teen may be blessed with 20/20 vision––but if they aren’t, you need to know how to approach their optical health. Getting them regular eye exams, especially if they express vision trouble, is crucial. After investing in corrective lenses, you’ll want to make sure they wear them.
It can be extremely frustrating if your teen doesn’t wear the expensive glasses you bought for them. A socially self-conscious teen may not like the way they look in glasses or think glasses aren’t cool, especially if they feel an unwavering force of peer pressure around their appearance. Luckily, new trends come and go every day, and many teens and celebrities alike have deemed fashionable eyeglasses a pinnacle of style. Some even wear fake lenses to achieve a certain look. So in all likelihood, your teen should be able to find a pair they approve of (try getting them a newer, trendy set of frames from (www.eyeglasses.com). If not, contacts are often an option.
When teens don’t wear their glasses, it can result in a variety of negative health and academic outcomes. They may find that they are plagued by eyestrain, headaches, and blurry or double vision. If your teen cannot read what’s on the school whiteboard, they might ignore an important detail rather than draw attention to the fact that they can’t see. Needless to say, this can be detrimental to their performance in school and overall well-being, so make sure to help them take care of their eye health.
Responsible, regular dental hygiene is also incredibly important to your teen’s health. In addition to regular dental check-ups, make sure they are brushing and flossing twice a day at home. Their diet will also impact their dental health, so encourage them to limit the volume of sugary foods and drinks they are consuming, as these will contribute to cavities and other dental problems. Of course, while regular brushing and flossing are essential to good dental health, brushing too overzealously can wear down the enamel of the teeth over time and lead to recedation of the gums, potentially increasing their risk of gum disease. Talking to your teen about finding the right balance between under- and over-brushing can be quick and easy, and will set them on the path to a lifetime of stellar dental hygiene.
One of the toughest physical changes your teen experiences can be changes in their skin. Many teens struggle with acne, dry skin, or a combination throughout these years, and it can have a substantial impact on their self-esteem and mental health, in addition to its physical discomfort. As hormonal changes cause their skin to have a mind of its own, teens may struggle with finding correct treatment options. Listening to their concerns and helping them find the products that work for them will help them take control of their health and appearance. There are a wide variety of over-the-counter skin care products specifically made for teenage skin, as well as many prescription options, both topical creams and daily medications. If your teen expresses serious concern or distress over their skin, consider scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist to discuss treatments and remedies. Sometimes a dietary tweak can help clear up skin, but some teens may need prescription medication to combat hormonal or bacterial issues. Either way, make sure to prioritize your teen’s concerns and help give them the tools to take control of their own skin health.
Your teen’s mental health is one of the most important aspects of their well-being to be aware of. Educating yourself on the struggles and dangers they face in order to negotiate a conversation about mental well-being is one of the most important things you can do as a parent. While there are active efforts to destigmatize discussions around mental health, mental health disorders are still dangerously prevalent among youth and adults alike. Statistics from Rethink Mental Health, an organization actively trying to combat the stigmatization of mental health disorders and empower people to seek treatment, show that:
- 7.1% of 3-17 years old have diagnosed anxiety
- 50% of mental health disorders begin before age 14; 75% before age 24
- 1 in 10 young people have experienced a major depression
- Over 1.7 million youth with major depressive episodes didn’t receive treatment
A host of biological and situational factors can contribute to negative mental health outcomes, including genetic predisposition. If your family has a history of mental health disorders, you should definitely discuss this with your teen so that they know to watch for any danger signs. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of common psychological disorders, including, but not limited to, Depression, Anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Understanding the ways these disorders may present will keep you in tune with your teen’s needs, understand the struggles they are facing, and prepare you to support them. Make it clear to them that they can bring any mental health concerns they may have to you, and be sure to respond non-judgmentally and with empathy and compassion. Research treatment options together and help them navigate the often confusing insurance barriers. Encourage them to seek therapy or engage in discussions with a medical professional about medication options. Whatever they are struggling with, and however they want to seek treatment, make sure they know that they are not alone and that you will support them. Asking for help when it comes to mental health is incredibly difficult and brave, so making sure you are an informed and compassionate resource for your teen is paramount.
Finally, while this may not commonly be considered an aspect of health, financial health is very important and is closely tied to both mental and physical health. Teaching your teen early on how to manage their basic finances will prepare them for the financial challenges of adulthood.
How many times have you lost sleep over financial concerns? There’s no such thing as starting too young when it comes to teaching children about the importance of financial responsibility. Many teens work part time and start to earn money of their own, so the teen years are an opportunity to build good financial practices for the future. While you want them to enjoy earning their paycheck and spending it, you want to teach them the importance of responsible habits sooner rather than later. Matching any savings they make, for instance, is a good way to encourage savings habits that they’ll benefit from for the rest of their lives. Some basic financial literacy topics to teach them about include:
- Checking and savings accounts
- Debit and credit cards
- Loans and interest
- Avoiding scams
Healthier, Happier Teens
Helping your teen navigate all of these facets of their health––from physical to mental to financial––may seem like a daunting task, but it’s incredibly important. You care about your teen, so you need to care about all aspects of their health. You’ll be surprised how naturally these topics come up, and how increasingly easy it will become to navigate the conversations with your teen. Educating them early and giving them the tools and confidence they need to develop responsible habits will set them up to lead healthy lives. A healthy teen is a happy teen.