6 Parenting Practices that Make For Healthy Kids

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on January 25, 2013

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When you think of raising healthy children, nutritious meals often come to mind. But there is a lot going on behind the scenes that can increase the chances of raising a healthy child.

In fact, parenting practices, the things we do day in and day out, have a huge impact on the healthy choices our children will make (or not) and their subsequent health. So here are 6 practices that parents can use to help children develop a healthy mindset, now and in the years to come.

1. Help children regulate their emotions: Parents have great influence on their children’s learning how to self-regulate their emotions, especially in the early years. Not only is emotional regulation important for child development, interaction with peers and general well being, difficulty managing emotions has been linked with weight gain, eating problems and obesity in middle childhood.

In order to help parents navigate negative emotions in children, Dr. John M. Gottman developed 5 elements to what he calls “emotion coaching,” including 1) being aware of your child’s emotions 2) viewing your child’s emotions as a learning opportunity 3) accepting, listening and validating your child’s feelings 4) helping your child verbalize emotions and 4) helping your child solve emotional problems in appropriate ways. For more details see Gottman’s website and book.

2. Utilize an authoritative feeding style: Joy served very healthy food but the way she served it wasn’t helping her children. She was controlling the what and how much they ate and one of her children began sneaking food, overeating at parties and begging for unhealthy items.

Joy’s feeding style was what researchers call “authoritarian,” in which she had high expectations with little regard for her child’s preferences or physical feelings, making the child more likely to rebel. A “permissive” or “indulgent” style, in which parents have low expectations for eating while letting children run the show, isn’t beneficial for healthy outcomes either. But an “authoritative” feeding style, in which expectations are high, meal structure is set and children are allowed reasonable choice in a warm environment, has been shown to have the best outcomes in terms of weight and healthy food intake. For more on feeding, join the Fearless Feeding, movement.

3. Help children manage stress: In 2009, Dr. Robert Epstein compiled 10 research-based parenting practices, that result in optimal outcomes for raising children. While it was no surprise that showing love and affection topped the list, the second most important parenting practice, stress management, was a surprise.

What is even more surprising is that taking steps to reduce stress was important not just for children but for adults too. In fact, the report concluded that, “Parents’ ability to manage stress was a good predictor of the quality of their relationship with their children.” Whether it’s relaxation techniques, promoting positive outlooks of events or helping a child (and yourself), say “no” to too many activities, this life skill will help them find constructive ways to deal with stressors, a key for good health.

4. Help children embrace their body: In one study, 1196 normal weight teenagers aged 13-19 years were asked how they felt about their bodies in terms of weight. Eleven years later (age 24-30), the ones who perceived themselves as overweight during adolescence, gained more weight into young adulthood than those who saw themselves as normal weight. Another study showed that a positive body image was protective against developing eating problems in girls.

It is hypothesized that those who view themselves as carrying excess weight, or with a body that is flawed, are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating practices, like dieting or binging, which have been associated with weight gain over time. By promoting a positive body image in children as well as focusing on their other qualities, parents increase the likelihood that kids will take care of their bodies instead of abuse them in order to fit the “thin ideal.” For more on the negative effects of dieting, see this video by Evelyn Tribole.

5. Ensure adequate sleep: There is emerging evidence linking sleep deprivation to increased eating in children and adults. Part of this has to do with changes in metabolism and the increase in hunger hormones. It has also been found that the types of food craved with little sleep tend to be less-than-healthy.

In a 2010 study published in Pediatrics, preschool children who regularly ate dinner with family, had enough nighttime sleep and had limited screen time were 40% less likely to be obese. While kids will go through different sleep stages, having a regular and consistent sleep routine with early bedtimes can help immensely.

6. Be an active family: With booming technology and the allure of TV, there are more ways than ever for families to be sedentary. A 2012 study found that children (ages 9-18) who had a television in their rooms not only watched more TV, but were less likely to be active as a family and more likely to buy soda and snacks at school. The children from the less active families had about half the amount of vigorous activity as the ones from active families.

Parents can limit screen time to less than 2 hours daily, keep TVs out of the bedroom, and find active things to do together. Whether it’s going for walks, getting outside for any activity or running around in the backyard or local park, making activity a regular part of family life, is key to developing this habit for a lifetime.

When your child (or you!) starts heading in an unhealthy direction, thinking more broadly about what’s causing behavior can go a long way towards finding solutions. But nothing works better than prevention.

Frankel LA, Hughes SO, S’Connor TM, Power TG, Fisher JO and Hazen NL. Parental influences on children’s self-regulation of energy intake: insights from developmental literature on emotion regulation. Journal of Obesity, 2012, published online doi: 10.115/2012/327259.

Epstein R. What makes a good parent? Scientific American, 2010.

Anderson SE and Whitaker RC. Household routines and obesity in US preschool-aged children. Pediatrics, 2010;125;420-428.

Masse LC, Blanck HM, Valente M, Atienza AA, Agurs-Collins T and Weber D. Association between self-reported household practices and body mass index of US children and adolescents, 2005. Preventing Chronic Disease, 2012;9:110149. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.588/pcd9.110149

Cuypers K, Kvaloy K, Bratberg G, Midthejell K, Holmen J, and Holmen TL. Being normal weight but feeling overweight in adolescence may affect weight development into young adulthood — an 11 year follow up, The HUNT study, Norway. Journal of Obesity, 2012, published online doi:10.1155/2012/601872

Back EA. Effects of parental relations and upbringing in troubled adolescent eating behaviors. Eating Disorders, 2011: 16;403-424.

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Jocelyn Golden January 31, 2013 at 9:22 am

As a recovered Bulimic after a 25 yr battle and now author and advocate for ED sufferers, I am so thrilled with this article. I began my battle at age 13 back in 1981. I am convinced that information like this and continued public education about Eating Disorders would have and will currently, help the thousands of sufferers around the world! The most fundamental basics that you have discussed are so imperative for families to implement in order to help children be deterred from developing an ED. As you now there are many facets to ED but these steps are more crucial than ever given the significant rise in ED’s and overall downward spiral in health. Thank you for this information!


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