Babies aren’t born knowing what to do to take care of themselves, so it’s crucial to show them early on what’s best for their physical health. Dr. Andrea Chao, Sauk Prairie Healthcare’s pediatrician who practices at the Lodi Clinic in Lodi, Wis., says children are more likely to have healthy habits when they’re older if the behavior is ritualized.
“Just the parents bringing them in for their yearly well visits really establishes that we have to take care of our bodies, just like we take care of our car,” Dr. Chao said.
Teaching children healthy habits when they’re young is key to them growing up healthy. This includes reminding them to wear helmets when riding bikes or playing football, brush and floss their teeth and eat healthy foods. While these might seem like simple steps, they can affect children’s safety and health when they’re older. For example, Dr. Chao explains, she tells children who come into her office that not brushing their teeth can cause tooth decay, which is connected to heart problems later on. For example, she explains that a tooth infection can lead to a heart infection.
Most of all, she says bringing children in for their yearly checkup helps them get used to visiting the doctor.
“I think when we talk about these things when they’re young, and they’re hearing it when they’re young, they’ll just be second nature to them when they’re older,” Dr. Chao said. “They’re used to their mother or father bringing them in for their 1-year-old well visit, their 2-year-old well visit. They come in every year, so if they have that habit established, they’re going to continue that through young adulthood.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 50 percent of new testicular cancer cases occur in men between 20 and 34 years old. Because it’s so prevalent among younger men, Dr. Chao urges boys to learn how to self-examine their testes, make sure that there isn’t anything growing on them and understand their bodies overall.
Dr. Chao starts teaching boys how to perform self-exams on their testes at their annual checkups before they turn 13 or 14 years old in some cases. She explains to her patients how to check them and make sure they’re developing appropriately so their testes will work for them when they’re older, and so they know what is normal and healthy for them.
“Testicular cancer is a disease of young adults,” Dr. Chao explained. “Young adults are often not going to the doctor. So every year when I check the testicles, I talk about how they need to check them themselves. I’m going to check them, but I want them to always know their bodies, so if anything changes they let me know.”
Setting up the building blocks for good mental health early can help both boys and girls be less afraid to tell others when something is bothering them, be it depression, anxiety or even something wrong with their physical health. One way to help is by building their self-esteem.
Guiding boys and girls to develop good self-esteem starts with making sure they know they are loved and can love themselves. Dr. Chao tells her patients’ parents from very early on that they won’t spoil their children with love and encourages them to hold them and spend time with them, including reading books together and talking about their feelings and what they like to do. Parents can also involve their children in activities they enjoy, such as walking or swimming.
As kids grow up, Dr. Chao says some will start to experience feelings of anxiety and depression. She tries to discuss these feelings with them at their annual checkups so they can better recognize them later. Otherwise, she warns, teens may think there’s something wrong with them.
“I really try to use the words ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression,’ and talking about your feelings at these middle school well visits, so that hopefully they can open up and share those feelings if they’re becoming too overwhelming,” Dr. Chao explained. She adds that knowing what makes them feel better when they are stressed out is the other piece of the puzzle.
“Is it exercising? Is it taking a hot shower? Is it going for a walk? Is it listening to music?” Dr. Chao asked. “I use those exact words, ‘What do you do to make yourself feel better when you’re stressed out?’” Whatever the case may be, she says these activities will come in handy when boys are feeling distressed.
Establishing healthy habits goes beyond making sure boys take care of their bodies and minds. It also means becoming a healthy member of society and learning how to interact with others, including in relationships. For example, some of the most important lessons Dr. Chao aims to teach include encouraging them to talk about their feelings instead of hitting when they’re upset, and how to calmly communicate when they’re sad or angry.
“We really talk about never hitting,” Dr. Chao said. “When they’re angry, try to take deep breaths, try to talk about your feelings, recognize when you’re feeling anxious, recognize when you’re feeling sad.”
She adds that removing the gender roles and restrictions children face throughout their lives will help boys be in tune with their health as they grow older, and help them express their feelings in healthy ways. This includes showing children that hitting, name-calling and other types of aggression are less acceptable than telling others how they feel when something upsets them or other nonviolent types of expression. Likewise, showing boys how to cook and clean will help them become well-rounded individuals and give them a sense of ownership and responsibility as they grow older.
Dr. Chao said that although it is ideal for a son to have a father to talk to, children can do well with one supportive parent, whether it’s a mother or a father. She stresses that children need at least one parent they can rely on for emotional and social support growing up.
Parents play an integral role in making sure their children develop good self-esteem and aren’t afraid to speak about what’s bothering them, largely by spending time with them. However, Dr. Chao notes that the amount of time spent together is less important than what you do with your children.
“I don’t focus on quantity of time, but instead on quality of time,” Dr. Chao said. “A lot of parents work, and I think that’s totally good, but when they have that time, they really want to use that to be quality time with their child.”
While parents should praise their kids when they’re good at something, they should also show them that they don’t always have to be the best or even good at that thing, but that they can get better if they work hard at it. Then, she explains, they’ll see themselves improving and learn that if they work hard, they can get better at what they do.
As children become teens, Dr. Chao says they are more likely to experience loneliness and worry about whether or not they have enough friends. In turn, they tend to get anxious and depressed if they feel like they don’t.
“We don’t ever really talk about loneliness, and it’s definitely a feeling that middle school-age students will recognize, and no one ever talks about it,” she explained. “So then they feel scared.”
Showing kids what to do when they feel lonely helps them process these feelings in safe, healthy ways and helps prevent them from becoming anxious or depressed.
“We all deal with feelings of loneliness at times, and it’s okay to be alone at times,” Dr. Chao said. However, as with physical and mental illness, she says it’s important for kids to know when loneliness becomes overwhelming and when to ask for help.