Do your kids shy away from sharing their health concerns with you…or are you worried that they will as they get older? You might be surprised to hear that how you deal with your own health issues—emotional and physical—has a powerful influence on them and whether they’re comfortable talking to you about theirs.
Here’s how to help kids of different ages—including resistant or even rebellious teens—understand the importance of good health at various ages and build the trust that will encourage them to confide in you when they have health concerns.
Share your own health trials and triumphs. Your kids will feel more comfortable talking to you about what’s happening with their bodies when you tell them a bit about yours. Talk about what you do to stay healthy—and encourage them to join in. When you have a health problem, tell them about it and what you’re doing to treat it (in age-appropriate terms). Don’t keep secrets about your health to “protect” them from the truth. They will feel better about sharing if they don’t feel left out of other family members’ health issues.
Help them understand the concept of good health from a young age. Use words to describe what it’s like to feel “good” or healthy and to feel “bad” or sick so that, as they get older, they’ll be easily able to communicate how they’re feeling to you. For instance, when your toddler is happily jumping up and down and has a smile on his/her face, say, “Yay, that feels great!” to associate words with the sensation. Do the same when he is sick by acknowledging “You don’t feel well because your belly hurts.”
Use “anatomically correct” words. By age three, most children are able to say the correct words for their body parts, including “penis” or “vagina.” Using these words as naturally as using “arm” and “leg” will help your child feel at ease talking with you about related health concerns. On the other hand, using euphemisms can send the message that these body parts are embarrassing or shameful and shouldn’t be discussed.
Don’t overreact to everyday mishaps…and teach young children how to “triage” their health issues. You don’t want your toddler or school-age youngster to overreact to every bump or bruise, so resist treating minor mishaps as calamities. On the other hand, don’t try to “toughen up” your child by minimizing every accident or illness. Make clear in what situations it’s OK for your child to get up, brush himself off and move on and when, instead, mom or dad needs to be told.
Look for and take advantage of relatable moments. For example, when you and your child are watching a show or movie that features a child or teen character who is sick or sad, use it as a talking point. Discuss what’s making the character feel that way, whether it’s ever happened to either of you and how you each dealt with it. These retrospective conversations can make it much easier for the two of you to have similar conversations when there’s a real-time problem.
Keep your perspective even as the teen years start. Tweens and teens will be more willing to come to you for help if they know you can stay calm and offer good advice. But should you over-react, offer a “parenting do-over.” Let’s say your teen admitted to having quite a few beers at a party and getting sick…and you started shouting and warning him about being grounded if he went to such a party again. You soon realize that’s not the approach to take if you want him to be honest with you again in the future. So, go back to your child and say, “I shouldn’t have threatened you, but I was upset. I’ve thought about it and promise next time I will do better. Let’s talk it over and also see how you can avoid putting your health in danger.”
Be willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers. If your child comes to you with questions about a health issue that you can’t answer, do some research together. Collaborative learning engages you in more-collaborative conversations.