Tag Archive for healthy development

It’s Not Easy Being Green… But It Is Definitely Happier

Remember Kermit the Frog’s song:

It’s not easy being green…But green is the color of spring. …And green can be cool and friendly-like. ….And green can be big like an ocean or important like a mountain or tall like a tree….

Maybe it wasn’t easy for Kermit to be green; but green truly is cool and friendly and big. And, it can do great things for our children and teens, like reducing stress. A study conducted with 179 urban-area teens over a two-year period revealed that teens who spent more time in natural green spaces away from home had lower stress levels. Lower levels of stress…that means better moods! Interestingly, this effect held true for any season—spring, summer, fall or winter. On top of that, other research suggests that playing outside and getting dirty may actually help the immune system. Less stress, better immune system…being green may not be easy but being in the green sure sounds good.

Why do I mention all this? Well, when your children come to you this summer saying, “I’m bored…” or when you see them “stuck” inside playing video games all day, tell them to “get out of the house. Go for a walk in the woods. Climb a tree. Enjoy the green outdoors. Have a picnic. Get dirty.” It will make them happier and do them some good.

…And A Hug to Grow On

Virginia Satir is quoted as saying,

“We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” You may read that and think, “That’s a lot of hugging. Who came up with those numbers, anyway?”

I don’t know who figured out the numbers; but research does reveal that hugs improve our physical and emotional health. For instance, 404 volunteers from the Pittsburgh area participated in a study exploring social support, hugging, and physical illness. The volunteers were asked every evening for 14 days about their social relationships and whether they had received a hug that day. Then, the volunteers were given nasal drops containing a virus that produced symptoms like the common cold (yes, they volunteered for this!). Volunteers who had received more hugs showed a decreased risk for actually “catching the cold.” In addition, of those who did “catch the cold,” those who had been hugged more often had less severe symptoms. And, the more hugs a person received, the more social support they felt. Hugs increased a sense of social support and decreased the risk of physically “catching a cold.”

Another study, involving 59 women in long-term relationships, shows that hugging can help reduce blood pressure too. In this study, the women were initially separated from their partner for 30 minutes. Then, their partner joined them for 10 minutes. During their 10 minutes together, they were encouraged to hold hands, watch a romantic video, and hug each other for at least 20 seconds. After 10-minutes together, the partner left, and the woman had to give an unprepared, spontaneous speech about an event that made her feel stressed. Blood pressure and oxytocin were measured throughout the procedure. The women also completed a questionnaire that included how frequently they hugged their partners. When all was said and done, more frequent hugging was related to higher oxytocin levels (Read 3…2…1…Oxytocin Release for more) and lower baseline blood pressure. In other words, more frequent hugging can help reduce high blood pressure and, as a result, the risk of heart disease.

Hugs can do even more too…but I don’t have the time or space to share it now. I just got an urge to hug my wife. She’s only had 4 today and I don’t want to quit hugging her at mere survival. I’m shooting for enough hugging to really us grow. What about you? Will you give the one you love 12 hugs a day for growth? 

Parenting Inuit Style

Did you know Inuit adults have an “extraordinary ability to control their anger”? I didn’t either; but anthropologist Jean Briggs spent years living with the Inuit people and reports that it is true. Inuit adults have an “extraordinary ability to control their anger.” That ability begins when parents teach their children to control their anger…and doing so in a rather unique manner. How do they do it? What’s so unique about the Inuit parenting style? An NPR article  entitled How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Their Anger describes three parenting strategies used to raise adults with an “extraordinary ability to control their anger.” Perhaps we can learn some important lessons from Inuit parenting.

First, Inuit parents do not shout or yell at young children. When adults yell at their child, it escalates the parent’s heart rate and impedes the child’s ability to think and process. In effect, a yelling parent shows a child what an adult tantrum looks like and teaches them to use similar behavior in solving problems in the future. In addition, yelling demeans the person being yelled at, even if that person is a child. Instead of yelling, Inuit parents focus on modeling calm behavior and calm problem-solving. They work to discover what has upset their child and contributed to them exhibiting problematic behaviors. We can take several positive actions from this lesson: 1) Treat your child with respect, even when you must discipline, 2) look for the underlying cause of their negative behavior (Why Do Children Misbehave?), and 3) model positive ways to control your own anger in the process. (For tips on reducing yelling, read Rewire Your Brain & Stop Yelling.)

Second, Inuit parents also use stories to teach consequences of inappropriate behavior, desired behaviors, and the values underlying appropriate behaviors. Inuit parents often used imaginative stories to teach. In fact, children learn through stories. The story of Pinocchio can teach a child the danger of lying and following the crowd. The story about “the boy who cried wolf” teaches a child the importance of being honest about needs and not creating drama. A story like A Child’s Fish Tale can teach the importance of limits and listening to parents. Stories teach important lessons and we can use them to teach our children about the behaviors we desire, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and the values undergirding both. These stories can be imaginative stories or “real life stories.” They can be stories you tell from your experience, stories you make up to emphasize a point, stories you read (find stories that help children overcome various struggles and teach important lessons, check out the blog at Books that Heal Kids), or stories you watch through various media streams. Keep an eye out for the lessons you can learn in the stories around you…and tell them to your children.

Third, perhaps the most interesting of the parenting strategies, Inuit parents re-enacted the negative behavior to show the negative results. You may not do this in the same manner as the Inuit parent (How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Their Anger), but you can still utilize this strategy. You can re-enact the negative behavior and results with puppets, stuffed animals, dolls, or even yourself to show the real-life consequences of their behaviors. However you choose to do it, let the parent play the role of the recipient of the negative behavior and the child play the role of the misbehaving party. Throughout the process, ask your child questions to help them understand the consequences of their behavior. Begin by asking your child to act out the role of one engaging in the negative behavior. “Why don’t you pretend to do that to the puppet?” As they do, think out loud with questions and statements like, “That hurts.” “Don’t you like me?” “I’m going to cry because that makes me sad.” “Why are you being so mean?”  This is all done with a tone of playfulness until the misbehaving child becomes bored and stops repeating the drama.

Perhaps we can practice some of the Inuit people’s parenting style and raise a generation of children who have an extraordinary ability to manage their anger…and have some fun in the process.

What a 10-year-old Gains Eating with Family!!

Everyone has heard about the benefits of eating together as a family (Read some of the benefits in The Lost Art of Family Meals).  However, a question remained about whether the results associated with eating together as a family reflect a healthy family or truly flow from the activity of eating together. Now, a study from the University of Montreal has attempted to settle that question. They followed children who were part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development from 5-months of age. At 6-years, their parents reported whether they had family meals together. Then, at 10-years-old, their parents, teachers, and even the children themselves provided information on the children’s lifestyle and well-being. The researchers accounted for factors like temperament and cognitive abilities of the child, parent’s education and psychological characteristics, and family functioning. In other words, they were able to factor out any pre-existing conditions that might influence the child’s well-being and focus solely on eating family meals together. What did they discover?

  • Children who enjoyed a positive family meal environment at 6-years of age had higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption at age 10 years…regardless of cognitive abilities, parental education, and family functioning.
  • Children who enjoyed a positive family meal environment at 6-years of age also had less physical aggressive, less oppositional behavior, and less delinquent behavior at 10-years of age…regardless of cognitive abilities, parental education, and family functioning.

Positive family meals, in and of themselves, contributed to children’s well-being at 10-years-old. They ate healthier, exhibited less aggression, and less negative behavior. Really, that is not surprising, is it? After all, children engage in social interactions with their parents and siblings during family meals. They learn how to discuss day-to-day concerns and even disagree over various topics in a civil and polite manner. They gain communication skills as they practice expressing themselves. They learn to associate eating well with positive experiences and so have eating well reinforced.  They experience the joy of acceptance at the family table and enjoy the growing bond with family that increases their sense of security (Learn how that security translates to better relationships in Hot Sauce vs. the Power of Relationship).  So, if you want to optimize your children’s communication skills, social skills, and overall maturity, make time to enjoy family meals.

A Television in the Bedroom

I have to start this blog with a caveat, a confession. I love TV. So, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not against televisions. I enjoy a good show or movie as much as the next guy. In fact, my wife and children would say I even enjoy a bad movie more than the next guy. But, a television in our children’s bedroom?  Bad idea…for children of any age. A study published in December, 2018 revealed a link between having a TV in the bedroom at the age of 4 and higher body mass index, more unhealthy eating habits, and lower levels of sociability at the age of 13 years. A TV in the bedroom of a 4-year-old was also linked to higher levels of emotional distress, depressive symptoms, victimization, and physical aggression at the age of 13 years. This study found these results true regardless of any pre-existing individual or family factors that would predispose such problems. A TV added to these problems on top of any other family or personal issues.

“But,” you might be saying, “I wouldn’t put a TV in my 4-year-olds room?” Dartmouth surveyed 6,522 children between the ages of 8- and 18-years of age in 2003. 59% of these youth had TV’s in their room. The researchers surveyed them again two and four years later. They found that those who had TV’s in their room were more likely overweight two years later. Two and four years later they continued to exhibit a growing body mass index. In other words, they were getting more overweight over the entire time of the study.   

Another study involving 781 adolescents found that older adolescents who have a TV in their bedrooms watched four to five more hours of television per week (over those who had no TV in their bedroom). That’s four to five hours they could be doing homework, playing outside, or helping around the house, making friends, or reading a book! They were also less likely to exercise, enjoy family meals, or eat fruits and vegetables.  

As these studies suggest, whether your child is 4-years-old, between 8- to 18-years-old, or an older adolescent, a TV in the bedroom leads to problems in health, mood, and social interactions. Like I said, I’m not against TV’s. I love a good show. But these studies give me pause; they make me think. Even more disconcerting, these studies focused on television prior to the age of smartphones and iPads. Perhaps we need to exercise even more caution with the extra options for show viewing available to our children and teens today. Take the screens out of the bedroom. Design your children’s bedroom as a safe haven for rest and relaxation, a place to sleep rather than text, binge watch Netflix, post on Instagram, or watch videos. Let them charge their phones outside the bedroom in a public area. Keep all electronic screen devices in a common area rather than the bedroom. Make the bedroom a place of rest, relaxation, and sleep.

Men, This Decision Will Change Your Brain for Good!

Researchers have discovered several activities that help reduce the risk of Dementia. Things like education, regular intellectual stimulation, financial security, gardening, knitting, and a mother’s diet during pregnancy have all been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. However, one decision helped men specifically. This one decision helped men live longer and reduced their risk for dementia. Lawrence Whalley, professor of mental health in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, puts it this way, “a boy is never told what he needs to do if he wants to live a longer life. But what he should do is marry an intelligent woman.” Yes, you heard it right. Men who marry intelligent women live longer, happier lives. And, they are at lower risk for developing dementia. In fact, some men with “intelligent wives” showed physical signs of dementia in brain scans but did not experience any symptoms of the disease. Despite what the scans revealed about the structure of their brains, they were “fully functional and ‘highly intelligent.'”

So, if your wife engages you in conversations that challenge your thinking, if she encourages adventures that present new opportunities for learning, or if she accompanies you on stimulating activities, take a moment to reflect on the precious gift you have been given. She is a gift that contributes to your long and happy life. She is a gift helping you remain mentally healthy. Why not do something today to show her how much you appreciate her presence in your life?

PS—I told my wife about this research. She just smiled and said, “No surprise there.”  I have to say, if marrying an intelligent woman helps a man live long, healthy, and wise…I have a lot of years left! I am truly blessed. How about you?

Second-Hand What??

We’ve all heard about the dangers of second-hand smoke. But, have you thought about the dangers of second-hand alcohol abuse? A recent article in BMC Medicine reported three ways in which people suffer consequences of alcohol abuse “second-hand.”

  1. Children born to mothers who drank excessively during pregnancy may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In Germany, where this study was conducted, 41 children of every 10,000 births have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and another 177 fell on the spectrum for fetal alcohol syndrome without meeting full criteria. Data from the CDC suggests that the statistic in the U.S. appear lower, ranging from 2-15 children of every 10,000 births depending on the area of the United States. That is 2-15 children too many.
  2. Individuals involved in automobile accidents in which the other driver was driving under the influence of alcohol. The authors of the study noted that in Germany, alcohol contributes to 45% of traffic fatalities.  In the U.S. alcohol was involved in 26.4% of fatal crashes.
  3. People who experience violence secondary to another person whose aggressive behavior was fueled by alcohol. According to an NIH Alcohol Alert 42 percent of violent crimes reported to the police involved alcohol.

All in all, alcohol seems to have a huge second-hand effect. These three areas do not even include the emotional strain and physical pain experienced by children and families, the financial strain placed on families by one person’s drinking, or the amount of money lost by employers due to poor work following overdrinking. All this to say, if you find people complain about your drinking, your drinking hurts more than just you. It can result in traffic fatalities, illnesses, and aggression. Excessive drinking can harm your children and your spouse emotionally as well as physically. It may impact your children’s future dating life and even their marriages. It will impact the happiness of your spouse and your children. With all the damage that comes with excessive drinking, why not give it up? Why not show your family just how much you love them by giving up the drinking?

A Teen Epidemic & Containment

The epidemic of depression and suicide is spreading among our teens (13-18-years-old) like wildfire, especially among girls. Consider these statistics:

  • Suicide rate has increased 31% from 2010 to 2015 among teens. Even more disturbing, the suicide rate has increased 65% among adolescent girls over the same time period!
  • Symptoms of depression have increased 58% among girls from 2010 to 2015 (Excessive Screen Time Linked to Suicide Risk).

In searching for potential causes of this rapid increase in depression and suicidal rates among teens, researchers realized that cell phone ownership increased dramatically over the same time period. In 2012, about half of Americans owned a cell phone. By 2015, only 3 years later, 92% of teens and young adults owned one.  This does not mean that cell phones cause depression, but an association between does exist between the two. Interestingly, this same research does not reveal a link between homework load, academic pressure, or financial problems and the rapid rise in depression and suicidal rates among teens even though it looked for such links (The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use, Study Says). On the other hand, the study did reveal that:

  • 13-18-year-olds who spend 3 or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to exhibit a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour or less on electronic devices,
  • 13-18-year-olds who spend 5 hours or more a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour on electronic devices.  
  • 48% of teens who spent 5 hours or more per day on electronic devices reported suicide-related behaviors compared to only 28% of teens who spent an hour or less on electronic devices. (OPEN LETTER FROM JANA PARTNERS AND CALSTRS TO APPLE INC.).

Fortunately, recognizing the link between electronic devices and depression and suicide offers us a way to contain the epidemic of depression and suicide rates among teens…not a complete cure, but a way to reduce the spread of an epidemic robbing us of our teens.  With that in mind, I offer four suggestions.

  1. Limit screen time to 2 hours per day or less. Our teens have not developed the skills to manage the addictive nature of electronic devices. (Perhaps many of us as adults have not developed those skills yet either.) Limiting screen-time to 2 hours per day keeps a teen in the area NOT associated with an increase in depressive symptoms or suicidal behaviors. This may involve teaching our teens to limit time spent on social media, turn off alerts, not spend down-time watching videos, limit video game time, and check social media less often. (For more, consider The Burden of a Smartphone.)
  2. Model limited use of electronic devices. We can’t expect our teens to use their devices less when they see us, their parents, wrapped up in our phones and devices. I thought I would never use electronic devices for 3 hours in a day. Surely, I was in the “safe zone.” Then Apple put “Screen Time” in the phone settings and my time usage started popping up. I discovered that I can easily average 3-4 hours per day on my smartphone! Clearly, I have to learn how to limit my time on the phone in order to model a healthy use of electronic devices to the children in my life. Do you?
  3. Encourage non-screen activities like sports, outdoor play and exercise, face-to-face interactions, church, non-screen hobbies, and family games. Teach your teens to have fun without screens. Let them learn by experience that face-to-face interactions are more enjoyable than social media, “real-life games” are more enjoyable than “virtual games,” and hands-on hobbies more enjoyable than screen-time games.
  4. Take a vacation from electronic devices. A study from UCLA noted that after only 5 days of a “device-free outdoor camp,” children performed better on tests for empathy than did a control group.  Another study showed that a month without Facebook led to greater happiness.  Take a vacation. Do it as a family and invest time previously spent on devices engaging in “real-time” interaction with one another and “real-life” experiences. (For more ideas, check out Don’t Let Them Take Over.)

We all have work to do in balancing our lives in a world where electronic devices impinge more and more on our daily lives. But the work we do to limit electronic devices in our lives and the lives our family members,’ could save a life…maybe even the life of your teen!

Bucking the Weaker Trend

According to a study conducted in Chelmsford, Essex, 10-year-olds reported a decline in physical activity between 2008 and 2014. The study’s authors believed this was the result of increased time on computers and greater parental concerns about children safety when engaging in “riskier” activities like climbing trees or wandering from home. 

“So what?” you might ask. “What’s the difference if children show a decrease in physical activity?”  The real concern is the consequences of this decrease in activity. To uncover the potential consequences of decreased activity, the study also looked at changes in height, weight, standing broad jump, sit-ups, handgrip, and arm-hang in 10-year-olds between the years of 1998 and 2014. Over that 16-year period (1998 through 2014), children have grown taller and their BMI has remained the same. However, they have experienced an overall 20% decrease in muscle strength and a 30% decrease in muscle endurance!  Children have become weaker. They have also become less tolerant of discomfort.

There is a way you can buck this trend though, a way to keep your children stronger and more tolerant of simple discomforts. Encourage them to engage in physical play outside. Give them significant household chores to complete. Encourage them to work with you in the yard or in the house. Let them experience the joys of hard work and the reward of completing a hands-on job. When they do these things, they will gain a greater sense of competence than any they can learn through video games. They will grow more aware of their body and be better able to maintain their own physical safety. They will acquire a stronger and healthier self-image than the self-image learned from watching television. They will grow stronger…not only physically but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well.  Then, maybe in another 16 years we will earn how 10-year-olds have not only grown taller but stronger.

Join Your Family in Song

My daughter was just learning to walk when we started singing “Go Down Moses” while dancing around the living room. My other daughter stood up to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as we solemnly buried a bird that had committed kamikaze against our front window. The toddler we babysat looked at me with anticipation and followed the directions of our impromptu lyrics calling her to step onto a small step and “jump” before laughing and asking to do it again.

When our children seem upset and begin to cry, we sing them a song to help them calm. When they can’t sleep, we sing them a lullaby. When they need to clean up their rooms, we might follow Barney’s cue and sing “Clean up, clean up….” We teach our children the alphabet through song. The list goes on. Music works wonders for a parent…and it continues working right through the teen years.

Children start remembering melodies as early as 5-months-old. At 11-months-old they are more receptive to a person singing a familiar song, even if that person is a stranger. Infants and children feel soothed by music and even begin to use music to calm themselves at a very young age. Who hasn’t heard their very young child, upset about having to take a nap, lying in their crib singing a song rather than crying? Even teens calm themselves through song.

Music brings us together. Whether we sing like a songbird or croak out a tune, it communicates that we are paying attention to the one we sing to and the ones we sing with. It signals that we are all part of the same group, we belong. Music draws us together and bonds us. It allows us to share emotions and even synchronizes us physically.

Why not use music in your family? Sing a song together. Listen to music together. Enjoy music together. Your family will love it. You will experience greater joy and intimacy with your family. Give it a try: “Sing. Sing a song. Make it simple to last the whole night long….” 

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