Not many parents realize how their own health behavior influences their kids’ health attitudes. Your child is like a little computer picking up and remembering every detail of the way you shop for and prepare food, the way you cope with stress, your attitudes toward exercise, smoking, and drinking, the way you deal with everyday illnesses, the way you react to the illnesses of friends, and your attitude toward death.
Perhaps even more important is the way you interact with your children about their health concerns and problems. If you step in, take over, make every pain and symptom a near-emergency, and make all the decisions, your children will probably grow up to feel that the smallest symptom requires a trip to the doctor. If, on the other hand, you involve your children in the process of observing, diagnosing, treating, and making decisions about professional care, they’ll grow up feeling that they have the ability to deal with most health problems themselves. Here are some ways to bring children up to be health-responsible:
When a child gets hurt or doesn’t feel well, unless it’s a serious emergency, deal with feelings first. Stay calm. Comfort the child if necessary. Don’t panic. You want to give the message that health problems can be handled with reason and common sense. Here’s a tip one of my teachers gave me in medical school: “The first thing to do in any emergency is to take your own pulse.”
Discuss exactly what has happened—in some detail. Your doctor always starts out by taking a history. You and your child should do the same: How did the problem develop? What might have caused the symptoms you observe? Has your child—or anyone in the family—had a similar problem or condition? If so, how was it handled? By referring back to past health episodes, you can learn to help your child deal with new ones.
Encourage children to examine their own bodies. Start out with the most obvious symptoms, but don’t stop there. Give at least a quick check to all parts of the body. If the child has a sore throat, it may be of great importance that he or she also has a rash on the tummy.
Encourage children to examine their own bodies when they are healthy, as well so changes can be easily noticed. You may wish to obtain some special tools in order to help you and the child do a more extensive physical examination: a thermometer, otoscope, stethoscope, perhaps a cuff for measuring blood pressure. Some of the new electronic blood pressure cuffs make it quite easy for children older than six to take their own blood pressures. These instruments are now available from many drug stores, all medical supply stores, and some doctor’s offices. Using medical tools at home helps children learn that many bodily functions are not much more mysterious than the burners on the stove or the ice cubes in the refrigerator.
Ask your children what they think should be done about the problem. Does a scrape need to be washed out with soap and water? Does a cut need a bandage? How about lying down for awhile? Would cold water make a burn feel better? Is this a job for the tweezers? Do you have a home medical reference that might have some useful information? Is there a friend or neighbor who could provide advice? Or is this a problem that should be seen by a health worker?
When you go to the doctor’s, office encourage your children to ask questions and participate in the decision-making process. Have the doctor explain – to the child – the need for any procedures or treatments. If the doctors suggests a drug, let the child see that you write down the name and understand how to take it-and what side effects to watch for.
Remember that the most important influence on children’s level of health responsibility is the way you take care of yourself. Our kids not only pay attention to what we say—they also notice what we do.