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Parents: Promoters of Healthy Habits

By Sharon L. Roan, Author of Our Daughters' Health

Parents play a major role in the development of healthy habits of their daughters.

You play a significant role in creating a healthy environment and instilling values and information that will give your daughter the best chance of vigorous, lifelong health. That doesn't simply mean making sure that she eats nutritiously or is encouraged to exercise. It also means teaching her how to express her opinions, stand up to peer pressure, and recognize the cultural forces that portray women differently from how we really are.

As parents, we we cannot depend on schools to help us raise healthy girls. The Carnegie Corporation report on adolescents called health and life curriculum "the weakest link in middle grad school reform." And at the 1997 meeting of the American Psychological Association, researchers presented several studies showing that various very popular "prevention" programs for kids - such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., school-based sex education programs, and the Children's Television Act - have all largely failed to meet their prevention goals. Finally, our health care system has sometimes let down girls, particularly in adolescence...

As parents, you already know intuitively that it's a big mistake to let your daughters learn about their bodies, sexuality, nutrition, and other health issues from their peers. Adolescent behavior is largely shaped by peers and by the media. You need to compete with those influences and act aggressively to counter misinformation. For example, research has shown that kids typically overestimate the number of their peers who are doing risky things like taking drugs. One easy and effective thing you can do is to tell your daughter that not everyone is doing what she suspects..

Families, it seems, matter greatly in children's adoption of healthy habits -- probably more than you think. One study of almost 1,500 high school students found that students who placed a high value on good health, understood the consequence of risky health behavior, and had parents who modeled good health habits indeed exhibited better health habits. The researchers also found that feeling good about school, having friends who participated in conventional activities like youth groups and community volunteer work, involvement in safe social activities, and church attendance correlated with good health habits.

Your daughter wants and needs your firm guidance well into her late teen years. A landmark 1997 survey of 12,000 adolescents, grades seventh through twelve, found that families are more important at discouraging children from taking major health risks than previously suspected. "There's been a pretty significant myth that peer groups are important and parents are not," said Dr. Robert Blum, one of the researchers how worked on the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health.
"We've focused so tremendously on peer pressure and instituted so many things to deal with peer pressure. And what this study is saying is that family environment matters most." The survey showed that teens who said they were close to their families were least likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drug use, smoking, and having sex. Children tended to have healthy habits if their parents had high expectations for their school performance and tended to be home at key times during the day (such as after school, dinner,and bedtime).

In particular parental expectations for their children's bright futures are crucial. The survey also found a strong protective factor in parents who consistently express feelings of warmth, love and caring to their kids. This doesn't necessarily mean spending large amounts of time with your daughter. Being home at certain times, for example, wasn't found to be as important as emotional closeness. "What this study showed is that it is emotional availability, far more than physical presence, that makes the difference. You need to give you kids the message that when they need to talk to you, you're available, even if it's by phone, and they they matter," the authors of the study concluded.

You also need to reinforce good health habits by "walking the walk." Research has concluded that teens closely model their parent's health habits regarding smoking, eating, and exercise. Even more impressive was the finding that teens will not pick and choose which of their parents' habits to model and instead tend to mimic their overall "health-risk liefstyle." Thus, if the parents had several poor health habits, the teen would tend to emulate those habits as well. Conversely, extremely healthy parents tended to have extremely health-conscious teens. Boys tended to follow their fathers' examples while girls repeated their mothers' habits..

Book review | Purchase 'Our Daughters' Health'

Our Daughters' HealthSharon L. Roan is the author of Our Daughters' Health, a compelling look at the health issues facing young girls today. In addition to authoring several books on health, Sharon L. Roan is the personal health writer for the Los Angeles Times, since 1990. She brings a wealth of experience to a wide range of topics in her book so important to mothers of girls - fitness, eating disorders, athletics, academics, nutrition, mental health, reproductive changes, and lifestyle choices.

© Copyright 2001 Sharon L. Roan, from 'Our Daughters' Health.' Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Hyperion. All rights reserved.


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