Grades, friendships, dating, curfews — there’s so much to think about when you’re raising a teen. Many of your concerns may be about the here and now. Are they getting good grades? Did they make up with their best friend? What time should they get home?
All of these concerns are important, but there’s another issue that can have a lasting impact on their wellbeing: their ability to manage their health on their own.
Here are 5 tips for raising a health-conscious teen.
1. Eat Healthy Together
The best way to keep your teen healthy is with food. By modeling and encouraging a healthy diet, your teen will grow accustomed to that lifestyle. Keep the pantry and fridge packed with healthy foods, eat nutritious meals together, and discourage the amount of eating out (which saves money, too).
In general, a healthy diet consists of:
- A variety of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, and oatmeal
- Low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt and cottage cheese
- Poultry and fish — preferably without the fatty skins
- Nuts and legumes (lentils, peas, etc.)
- Non-tropical vegetable oils, like canola, corn, olive, and sunflower oil
You should also try to limit foods high in saturated fat and sodium, and keep red meats, sweets, and sugar-sweetened drinks to a minimum.
Encouraging healthy eating doesn’t just come down to what you put on the dinner table. You can also:
- Make it fun: Help them understand that eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring — and get them involved in the process. Cook a heart-healthy meal with your teen, or have them cook for the family.
- Talk about making healthy food swaps: Often, eating healthy comes down to making choices, which they will eventually need to do on their own. For instance, try snacking on popcorn versus chips, substituting Greek yogurt for sour cream, freezing grapes instead of eating sweets, or drinking sparkling water and not soda.
- Get informed: Read nutritional labels and talk about what they mean. Which vitamins and minerals do you need more of? What do saturated and trans fats even mean? How much sodium is too much? Having these conversations will keep you and your teen knowledgeable about healthy eating.
2. Follow the Mantra “Active Play Every Day”
Kids ages 6 to 17 should be getting at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity — mostly aerobic, like running or swimming. But only 1 in 3 children are physically active each day — likely because the average child spends more than 7 hours a day in front of some type of screen, like a TV or computer.
Encourage your teen to get moving every day. This can lower their risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and many other health conditions. Being active also leads to a better night’s sleep, improved attention and memory, and an overall feeling of wellbeing.
Examples of moderate physical activities include:
- Brisk walking
- Swimming (leisurely)
- Light yard work, like gardening or raking
- Tennis (doubles)
- Biking (less than 10 mph)
Examples of vigorous physical activities include:
- Hiking or running
- Swimming laps
- Heavy yard work, like digging or hoeing
- Tennis (singles)
- Biking 10 mph or faster
Once your teen gets used to physical activity, they’re more likely to maintain this lifestyle as they grow up.
Staying active doesn’t have to be complicated. Try these tips to get your teen moving:
- Limit screen time: Have a set time that your teen is allowed to be on the computer, phone, or tablet; watching TV; or playing video games — such as no more than 2 hours per day. However, you may way to allow more time when it comes to activities such as homework on the computer but less time for video games.
- Stay active together: Go on physically active day trips, like a hike or a family bike ride. Encourage activity by getting a soccer game going in the backyard or tossing a football around.
- Find little ways to get moving: Encourage active opportunities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking a little farther away in the parking lot, or taking an evening stroll to the store rather than driving.
3. Talk About Why Smoking Can Be so Harmful
Tobacco is one of the most harmful things you can put in your body. It causes about 1 in 5 deaths in the US. It’s entirely preventable, but it can be a temptation for teens, especially in social situations. In fact, nearly 8 out of every 100 high school students said they’ve smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days.
Smoking doesn’t just include smoking cigarettes anymore. Make sure your teen understands that other ways of inhaling tobacco — such as hookahs, water pipes, and electronic cigarettes/vaping (including Juul) — are just as harmful.
Talk to your teen regularly about the risks of smoking so you can be sure they know the consequences. Remind them that tobacco can harm nearly every organ in your body, including:
- Heart and blood vessels
- Eyes and mouth
- Reproductive organs
- Digestive organs
Marijuana use can impair brain development in teens — especially considering that the human brain typically does not finish fully developing until a person is in their mid-20s. Yet nearly 40% of high school students in the US have tried marijuana at least once. And about 6% of twelfth graders consume marijuana on a daily basis.
As with tobacco, marijuana can also be consumed in several different ways — including cigarettes (joints, blunts), pipes, and vaporizers.
It’s important to discuss the effects marijuana use can have on your teen’s health and wellbeing, including:
- Breathing problems, which can become chronic
- Increased risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues
- Poor school performance — and an increased risk of dropping out
- Unsafe driving
- Addiction, which can lead to symptoms of withdrawal
Talking to Your Teen About Smoking
Talking about smoking can be difficult. Here are some ways to make this conversation go a little more smoothly:
- Talk with them, not at them: As with many tough conversations, teens can shut down and get defensive if they feel like you’re talking down to them. Ask them what they know about smoking, listen to them, and share what you know.
- Set rules and expectations — and follow through on them: Your teen should know what the family rules are when it comes to smoking and what the consequences are if they break them. Be prepared to discipline them accordingly.
- Keep communication lines open: You should be ready to answer any questions they might have honestly. And if you believe your teen is smoking, you should talk to them right away.
- Model healthy behavior: If you smoke but you tell your teen not to smoke, that can send mixed signals. You can model health-conscious choices by quitting and showing how important your health is to you.
4. Discuss What a Healthy Body Image Looks Like
Conversations about living a healthy lifestyle wouldn’t be complete if you ignore how your teen sees their body.
Emphasize that they don’t need to have a perfect body to have a healthy body, and that eating healthy and staying active are more important than how their body looks.
Here are some talking points for a productive conversation about body image:
- Talk about what being attractive means: Help your teen recognize that they can like their body without comparing themselves to others. Maybe they like their hair, their smile, or their legs. Encourage them to feel good about themselves for who they are, not who they aren’t.
- Focus on more than just looks: Talk about what their bodies can do — swim, run, stretch. Their bodies do so much for them. They can recognize and appreciate that, with your help.
- Encourage them to listen to their bodies: If they’re tired, they should sleep more. If they’re feeling stressed, they should find ways to relax, like taking a long walk or meditating. Work with them to help them learn that their body is always communicating with them, and the best way to honor it is to listen.
5. Encourage Open Conversations with Health Care Providers
One of the most important ways to encourage healthy behavior is by explaining to your teen that when they have a health-related concern, they should feel comfortable talking to a professional. By making sure they go to regular check-ups and get to their health care providers when something’s going on, you can help your teen understand how important these appointments can be.
Here are some tips to help your teen get the most from their health care providers:
- Explain what the role of a health care provider is: Talk to your teen about how the role of a medical professional is to help — not judge. Your teen should understand that they’ll get the most out of these conversations if they’re honest.
- Give your teen some privacy: If they prefer to spend part or all of their appointment with their provider alone, honor that choice. It can be helpful for your teen to get used to advocating for themselves.
- Encourage your teen to bring a list of questions to appointments: This can help put them in a more proactive role during conversations with their health care provider.
Keep the Conversation Going
Even when you’ve had all of these conversations, your job as a parent is not over. Keep talking, listening, and learning with your teen. Model how your own understanding of health is always evolving and improving so that your teen can learn by example.