As most parents can attest, teens are often more concerned with their social lives than with creating healthy physical, emotional and spiritual habits. In fact, the journal Pediatrics recently reported that more than nine in 10 adolescents fail to get the minimum 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous daily physical activity recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many teens will continue their sedentary lifestyle into adulthood, contributing to physical and mental health issues.
“Parents and teachers can do a lot to encourage teens to create lifelong wellness habits, through education, communication and modeling,” says Jordan James, director of the Wellness Program at Archbishop Murphy High School in Seattle. The school focuses on monthly topics that cover the three pillars of wellness: physical, mental/emotional and spiritual, drawing on collaboration with campus ministry, counseling, faculty/staff, parents, community members, business leaders and local and national consultants. Topics such as mental health, respect and life skills are key components during community-based events and classroom activities.
Facilitate open communication
As children becomes teens, it’s normal for them to rely more on their relationships with peers and talk less to parents. That means the responsibility to keep lines of communication open will fall more on parents. “Just because your son or daughter isn’t initiating conversations, it doesn’t mean they don’t want or need you — maybe just not in the same way,” says James, who suggests listening more and talking less.
Silence can be an important part of the conversation, allowing the teen to process what they think and how they want to express their ideas. “Create an open space for dialogue with your children about spirituality, encouraging them to question and dive deeper into what they believe in,” says Anna Hogenson, Campus Ministry, AMHS.
Getting teens to open up may require asking specific questions that elicit some details, as opposed to general questions like, “How was your day?” AMHS sends out a monthly newsletter with resources and suggested questions for parents to start conversations about the wellness topic being focused on in the classroom. For example, the newsletter focusing on anxiety included tips from the CDC. “A five-minute chat can go a long way toward building trust for longer conversations,” James says.
Be a positive role model
Communication is important, but the other half of the equation is walking the talk. When the whole family is committed to praying together or setting aside time for family dinners, for example, it becomes easier to make this a daily habit.
“Modeling wellness doesn’t mean being perfect,” says Allison Sinex, a counselor who works with students, parents and teachers at AMHS. “It means showing your kids that you have the tools to adapt and reset on a rough day. Some days you may need to go for a run to blow off steam, some days you may need to meditate or pray, and practice self-compassion more because you’re emotionally fragile.”
Part of modeling, says Sinex, is letting kids know they can fail and that’s OK. Admitting when you are wrong is part of that. Nobody’s asking parents to be perfect, and that’s certainly not the message to send to teens. Admitting when you are wrong is an opportunity to build trust and empathy, as well as model the honesty and humility that strong relationships are built on.
While arguing is a normal part of communicating, especially with teens, modeling how adults have tense discussions without blowing up is important. After the argument, allow some space for everyone involved to reset. Parents must remember to regain their own equilibrium before expecting teens to stop being angry. Let them know they can be angry for as long as they like, but they need to do it in the space of their own room.
Don’t give up!
Teens may not start going for daily walks just because a parent does, or open up the first time they’re asked a question about their faith or mental health. Don’t give up. It’s a new experience for everyone. “Our hope is that by continually offering parents resources through programs and the newsletter, they’ll keep trying to communicate and model wellness,” Sinex says. “At some point, your efforts will pay off — even if you don’t see it until your children are adults themselves, raising their own children!”
Action items: 3 tips for creating healthy eating habits for teens
Hybrid high school classes are here to stay, making it more important than ever to create a home environment that encourages good wellness habits. Here are some tips.
1. Get your teen involved. Designate one night each week when your teen plans and prepares a healthy family meal.
2. Let your teen make choices. Once they are driving, send them to the grocery store with a small list and ask them to make choices about the healthiest brand to buy, the vegetables for a stir-fry, a cereal that looks tasty and healthy.
3. Make healthy snack food easy-access. Limit empty-calorie chips and soda, and keep healthier (but still tasty!) snacks at your kids’ fingertips. Keep a bowl of berries or grapes on the kitchen counter, snack-packs of whole-grain crackers and peanut butter and chocolate protein bars near their computer, sparkling water with a splash of juice in the fridge.
The Wellness Program at Archbishop Murphy High School strives to bring unique initiatives to campus with the goal of improving mental, physical and spiritual aspects across the AMHS community. Topics such as mental health, respect, and life skills are key components.