The pandemic uprooted all of us from the daily rhythms and activities — such as regular movement, healthy eating, and sleep—that keep us balanced and healthy. And kids experienced some of the most radical changes. They lost socialization with peers, replacing it with Google meets and video game chats. Many had unfettered access to screens as parents scrambled to get work done from home with no childcare. The snack drawer has been open for business 24-7, but the organized sports to burn off the extra calories were shuttered. It’s no surprise that preliminary research suggests the mental and physical well-being of kids suffered significantly.
But with the new school year, we are all emerging from our extended hibernation with a desire to return healthy habits to our lives. Here is a gentle guide to getting your kids — and yourself — back in the groove.
Recognize it will take time
As we return to regular routines and add in new habits, it’s important to be compassionate with ourselves and our kids. “This has been really stressful for everybody,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist in New York City and author of The Book of No. “Some children will bounce back into old routines immediately and others will need some space and time to adjust. Give them some leeway and some time.” The same goes for you.
“We are conditioned as parents to always look for what the problem is instead of looking for assets,” says Katie Hurley, LCSW, a psychologist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. “Screen time is a big one right now. Eating habits is another with parents wondering are kids eating too much or too little?” It’s possible that your perception of how much your kid is on the screen — or how many chips he grabs from the snack drawer — is not accurate. So, Hurley always has parents start by “taking a step back and paying attention to your kid’s habits for a few weeks.” It can help to jot down some notes of what you observe, so you get an accurate picture of your child’s routine. Then you can figure out the most important areas to start with.
There’s been a lot of good research on habit change lately and one of the key findings is that making your goals small and attainable is a key to experiencing success and building on it. “If you think your kids are having bad habits around eating, don’t totally overhaul their eating,” says Hurley. “Take something small — like once a day we are going to eat a red fruit such as strawberries, watermelon, cherries.”
The same goes for screens. “If you’ve been tracking your kid’s screen time and notice they’ve been on it for six hours a day and then you tell them they have to limit it to 30 minutes, you are asking them to be cranky and disconnected,” says Hurley. Take a step-down approach where you decrease the amount in small increments (try a half-hour less each week).
Do it as a family
“One of the reasons these kinds of things fail is that kids are constantly being told what they did wrong, and that just doesn’t work,” says Hurley. When you take a dictatorial approach, “your children will just sneak their screen time or snacks,” says Newman, “and you don’t want that.”
Instead, recognize that “we are coming out of a time where most of us had at least one thing we struggled with,” says Hurley. “Maybe we exercised and ate well but spent too much time on our phones. Everyone has something they can work on.”
Rather than just focusing on your child, Hurley recommends making it a family project. “When parents own their own behaviors that need changing, it models for kids that we all go through stuff and we all need to work on stuff,” says Hurley. Call a family meeting or make it a dinnertime conversation and brainstorm one habit change everyone wants to work on for themselves.
Turn it into a friendly competition
Contracts are a popular way to try to put limits around things like screen time, but Hurley doesn’t recommend them in a post-pandemic world, because “that’s an added pressure for kids and parents right now.” Instead, she suggests “going old school with a whiteboard.” Give the family a time frame — one month, say — and have everyone write up their goal and track their successes. “Kids love challenges,” says Hurley. Cheer each other on, support each other through setbacks and consider establishing a family reward for when you hit big milestones.
Plan for setbacks and meltdowns
Change is not a linear process, especially when it comes to human behavior. There will be setbacks, and that’s just part of the deal. Let your kids know that, particularly in relation to screens. “No matter what you do, if you have let your child have unlimited access and you are suddenly pulling it back, there are going to be protests,” says Hurley. Tell your kid that there will probably be times when they are mad at you, and that’s ok. It’s your job to help them set healthy boundaries, and it’s their job to test them.
No matter what, get your sleep back on track
Sleep has been one of the “biggest routines to fall by the wayside in COVID,” says Hurley. “Kids are staying up way too late and parents have been looking the other way.” And good sleep is critical to so many parts of a child’s life — mental and physical health, academic skills, good social relationships, and even empathy and compassion. “Sleep is your blueprint. You build the house on top of that,” says Hurley.
Similar to screens, you should be prepared for pushback. Your child may think they are doing fine on the sleep they are getting, but, says Hurley, “kids don’t always know what they need. They may have just been getting by on survival mode.” Start incrementally, backing bedtime up an hour at a time, and help kids wind down so sleep comes easier.
Here are some ideas for your family healthy habit brainstorm session:
- Pick specific times when screens are off-limits, such as during meals, after dinner time or in the morning.
- Put a basket in a common area and have everyone toss their cellphones in for a set period of time each day.
- Use the “screen-time” app to keep everyone accountable and make it a competition to see who can lower it the most.
- Use fitness trackers and have everyone set their own goal they want to work toward. Celebrate when they reach it.
- Train for a 5K or other organized event together. For an added incentive pick one that supports a cause your family believes in. Or, have each member pick an event and work toward each of them over time.
- Let technology help where it can. Hurley’s daughter loves to do Just Dance on the Xbox. Or, try YouTube videos the whole family can do. “Kids love technology because it has a lot to offer,” says Hurley. “Use it to your advantage.”
- Plan outdoor activities your kids are willing to do (notice the bar is not “enthusiastic” just “willing”). Some options: hiking, biking, boating, swimming, fishing, walking. If everyone is interested in something different, plan a series of outings over several weeks.
- Make it a goal to eat a fruit or vegetable at every meal for a week.
- Have each family member pick out a new recipe they want to try and then cook together. Working through the list can be a fun family project.
- Set a specific number of meals you want to eat as a family each week.
- Create sleep cues two hours before you want kids in bed, such as lowering lights, turning off the TV, and closing the kitchen.
- Encourage reading or listening to stories. “Even teens like to be read to,” says Hurley, “though they may not say so.” If your child reads on their own, they might like to revisit favorite books (predictability is calming) or graphic novels, which are easier to take in.
- Try relaxing apps such as the “Sleep Stories” on the Calm app to help kids settle in their beds.
- Ask your kids what helps them calm down and disconnect from the day. A bath or warm shower can be a nice signal to the body that it’s time to shift modes. Some kids like sleep masks or drawing or coloring before bed.
Remember that mental health matters most of all
While all of these habits can help improve or strengthen mental health, the pressure to meet goals or the fear of failing can undo the good you are hoping to do. Listen to your kids and what sounds doable and enjoyable to them. Some kids hate competition. Others prefer tree climbing to any kind of organized event.
And know that when it comes to eating habits, “we’re seeing a spike in eating disorders,” says Hurley. That’s where really paying attention to what is going on with your child first will help. If you think your child may be developing an eating disorder (see a list of signs and symptoms here), check out this excellent Parent Tool Kit from the National Eating Disorder Association.
As Hurley wisely counsels, the most important family habit to cultivate right now is “self-care and compassion.”
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