Positive Lifestyle Changes in Teens

tired teenager

Bad Habits and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Teenagers and adolescents have had their well-being severely impacted by COVID-19. The worry, stress, and sadness of the global situation, coupled with the isolation induced by social distancing and the closure of schools, has taken its toll. Many adolescents report increases in depression and anxiety. Research also supports the likelihood that many more young people will develop such issues as a result of these circumstances in the future.

During their teenage years, adolescents form the behaviors they will carry with them into adulthood. They are especially vulnerable to the development of bad habits and unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is all too easy for teens to neglect their health right now, whether through a lack of motivation to eat well or exercise, an inability to manage stress, or a refusal to acknowledge and address their emotional needs. There are many ways parents can help them avoid these pitfalls, and embrace healthy lifestyle choices which can aid them in their responses to stress throughout the pandemic and beyond.

Shifting Towards a Healthier Diet

One of the most fundamental lifestyle changes teens can make is in their nutritional choices. Many teenagers and adolescents in the United States eat nutritionally substandard meals, with diets high in fat and added sugar. They frequently consume fast food and takeout from restaurants. Some teenagers also exhibit unhealthy dieting behaviors, which can lead to eating disorders.A teen’s diet has direct and tangible impacts on their physical and mental health. A poor diet can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and a host of health issues down the road. It can also contribute to poor mental health, with fast food and sugar both linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety.

A gradual replacement of junk food with healthier alternatives is a positive step in the right direction. Limiting and eventually eliminating unhealthy dietary choices in the house, like sugary drinks or chips, can help teenagers along the path to a better diet. 

It is understandably tempting for parents to opt for takeout or to order delivery during this pandemic, given the lack of time and abundance of stress of the situation. However, it is far more desirable to make home-cooked meals, whenever possible. Making a commitment to limiting fast food and takeout or delivery to once a week affords you an opportunity to cook alongside your teen. This opens up the option of preparing meals and snacks ahead of time and freezing them for the week ahead. Cooking with your teenager gives them a healthy skill that they can take with them wherever they go and fosters independence. It also gives you and your teenager something to do together, providing a sense of bonding, productivity, and a distraction from worry. 

The Importance of Good Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is another oft-neglected but critically important aspect of a teenager’s health. As many as two-thirds of teenagers get less than the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. A lack of proper sleep often spills over into a teen’s waking hours, causing fatigue, mood issues like irritability, and an inability to focus. This often has academic repercussions as well.

One method to help your teen fix their sleep hygiene is to set a basic time to go to bed and get up. Teens should limit exposure to screens within an hour of this time, opting to read a book or listen to music before bed instead. If sleep issues become a recurring problem, removing such devices before bed may be necessary. Other strategies include:

  • establishing a pre-sleep routine with your teenager which helps them wind down from the day
  • watching out for oversleeping during the day, which could disrupt your teen’s ability to get to sleep at night
  • making sure that your teen gets their academic work done at a regular time during the day so they don’t have to cram at night
  • ensuring that your teen’s consumption of beverages, like coffee or energy drinks, isn’t excessive and causing sleep disruptions
  • addressing issues like anxiety that may be keeping them up at night

The Value of Exercise for Physical and Mental Health

Exercise is a vital aspect of self-care for one’s body and mind. With COVID-19 resulting in the closure of most gyms, it can be difficult to get a good workout at home. Supporting your child’s efforts, no matter how small at first, plays a large role in their attitudes to exercise.

Encourage your teen to think about routines they can do at home, such as yoga, jumping rope, bodyweight exercises like pushups, or exercises with equipment like dumbbells or kettlebells. Many apps exist that teens can take advantage of that offer ways to track workouts and connect with communities of people working on the same routines. Socially distanced walks around the block can be another great way to get active and get outside. The addition of small positive changes, like a regular walk, can be the first step to a commitment to a healthier lifestyle. Incorporating exercise into a regular routine can help your teen stay fit while also combating stress and anxiety.[vi]

Mental Health and Self-Care

The goal of lifestyle changes is to create positive habits that support one’s well-being in all aspects of life. Self-care is a large part of this, now more than ever. Teens need to find healthy ways to de-stress and manage feelings of anxiety and sadness. This could involve activities like meditation, yoga, or listening to music.

Teens may wish to talk about their worries with parents, friends, or even healthcare professionals via tele-therapy. It may also be necessary to take a conscious step away from the news and social media, where awareness of more negative world events can build every day. Parents can discuss these sorts of healthy coping mechanisms with their teens. They can also recommend picking up new hobbies, such as learning new games, an instrument, or an artistic endeavor. Parents should also make sure that their children know they are available to talk or to listen, letting them know they always have someone to depend on.

Encouraging healthy lifestyle choices is an important way to support your teenager throughout this crisis. For all such lifestyle changes, the American Psychological Association recommends forming a realistic plan with small, manageable goals, to take small steps one change at a time, and to involve support from friends, family, and loved ones. While COVID-19 has introduced serious worries about health, helping your teen make positive shifts in their lifestyle can give them a strong foundation for maintaining their physical and emotional fitness through these challenging times.

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