Obesity, computers, toxins – no wonder we worry about our kids. But – with the help of natural, holistic techniques - they will become healthy and socially responsible adults.
Today's headlines read like a list of insurmountable health challenges for our children, with record rates of obesity and developmental and behavioural problems. However, as parents we can set our kids on the right path, reinforcing the importance of eating well, being active and taking care of the environment and one another. Together, we can rise above those challenges to a healthy and happy future.
Problem 1: Too much technology
Children spend a truly staggering amount of time on electronic devices - on average, kids between eight and 18 years spend more than seven and a half hours a day looking at a screen of some kind, says a Kaiser Family Foundation study. Psychologists have provided very sobering statistics which prove that early and excessive use of technology can lead to increased appetite, obesity, lack of empathy, suppressed melatonin (which affects growth hormones), and raised cholesterol levels. Other experts have looked closely at its detrimental impact on children's education.
“Too much technology exposure can lead to inattentiveness in the classroom,” explains Mali Mann, clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, California. “Their brains get used to too much auditory and visual stimulation. In the absence of these stimulations, they do not know what to do with themselves. They get anxious, restless, bored and aggressive. Too much screen use also interferes with their sleep.” More often than not, these kids are labelled as suffering from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Additional research shows that passive learning through electronic devices influences neurological patterning for the rest of kids’ lives, making them unable to effectively process information.
Solution: Technology, despite its downfalls, can benefit kids. Computers and educational television programs are useful teaching tools, while some video games encourage creativity and physical fitness. We also know that banning something entirely only makes it more appealing, so, instead of an outright ban, limit all electronic devices to less than two hours a day. Discussing the reasons for doing this with your kids will help build their understanding and acceptance. Identify clear 'tech-free' zones to ensure attention is focused on those around you - at meal-times, for example. Keep televisions and computers out of children's rooms to create an environment conducive to peaceful rest, and encourage other hobbies, such as photography, sport, art projects or learning a musical instrument.
Problem 2: Sedentary lifestyles
Studies show that one-quarter of all Australian children - that’s 600,000 kids - are already overweight or obese. Levels of childhood obesity continue to rise as they spend more time sitting around eating foods high in fat and sugars, and less time involved in physical activity. Plus, while they zone out in front of the television, children are exposed to an astonishing 6,000-7,600 advertisements for confectionery, sugared cereal, fast food and soft drinks per year. They’re also more likely to unconsciously consume large quantities of these calorific snacks while staring at the screen. This inactivity has long-lasting effects, including high levels of obesity, late onset of puberty and difficulty sleeping.
Solution: Spending more time actively enjoying the outdoors, whether in creative play or as part of organised sport, is associated with lower levels of childhood obesity, optimal vitamin D levels (boosting mental and physical health), fewer symptoms of ADHD, improved long distance vision, and higher test scores. Volunteering with environmental groups or taking outdoor holidays can boost your child’s health, outlook and appreciation for the natural world.
“From spending time in nature, a child develops self-confidence and resilience to face life’s bumps and challenges,” says Marilyn Wedge, family therapist and author of Pills are not for Preschoolers: a Drug-free Approach for Troubled Kids. Research shows that active kids develop stronger bonds of understanding, trust and affection with their parents, which protects against poor psychological health and participation in risky health behaviours, such as drugs and alcohol. Spend time together outside each day, playing ball games, taking photographs or simply enjoying nature. Don’t wait for sunny weather; invest in good waterproof boots and a warm jacket and get out there together.
Problem 3: Stress and anxiety
If you think only adults get stressed, think again. Kids of all ages suffer headaches, have trouble sleeping and experience panic attacks as a result of worry and anxiety. Rita Bettenburg, former dean of naturopathic medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine, believes high levels of stress experienced by children result from 'helicopter parenting'.
“Kids are stressed because they perceive themselves as powerless,” explains Bettenburg. “Parents have been socialised to feel that they shouldn't allow their children to feel pain. Parents work so hard to prevent frustrations and failures that they actually deny their children valuable lessons and problem-solving skills. Kids have to get frustrated – they need limits, and they need to be allowed to fail in a supportive way. They have no concept of how to solve problems, so if it’s not the way they want it, it’s scary.”
Solution: Open communication is key to relieving children's stress. Yet, most of us tend to brush off or ignore what our kids tell us, instead jumping in with our own conclusions about what they need. But at what cost? “A child who is forever dismissed eventually gives up or becomes indifferent at best,” explains Michael Ungar, family therapist and author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. “But when children's thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams are validated, they're inspired to take responsibility for their actions and make powerful, valuable contributions.”
Spend quality time with your kids and really listen to what they have to say. Engage them in a relaxing activity, such as cooking together, to make it easier for them to share with you. Resist the tendency to do all that you can to guarantee continual success. Instead, support your child when they don't make the grade, and help them explore what they can learn from the experience. At mealtimes, listen and share. “Mealtimes give children a sense of predictability and identity, helping them feel more secure and confident,” says Christine Carter, sociologist and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. “Eating together ensures these kids are more emotionally stable and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol,” she adds.
Problem 4: Processed food
French fries, chicken nuggets and tomato ketchup are just some of the processed foods that have unfortunately become staples in most children's diets. Kids find them hard to resist, and when time or money is tight, it’s tempting to fall back on these processed convenience foods. "Processed foods have fewer essential fats and B vitamins and less zinc, vital for brain function and intellectual development," explains nutritionist Patrick Holford. Plus, processed foods contain fast-releasing carbohydrates which lead to sugar cravings, increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. High levels of sugar are also linked to delinquency and behaviour problems in children.
Solution: Model healthy eating habits by buying fresh organic products instead of highly-processed convenience foods, and cooking with the fewest and simplest ingredients possible. Children need a well-balanced diet, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low fat or non-fat dairy products, beans, fish and lean meat. Those who eat nutrient-rich produce demonstrate greater accuracy in attention-based tasks, and improved cognition and mood. Fruit also lowers kids' sugar intake. Plums and bananas, for example, are slow-releasing carbohydrates, which help prevent kids from developing a sweet tooth and ensure that they do not get such big blood sugar swings. "Optimally nourished children are brighter, calmer and more adaptable," Holford says. "They look and feel healthier, too."
Problem 5: Minimise medication
Drugs may be necessary, even life-saving for some kids, but they’re not always the answer and often cause side effects, including sleep problems, mood swings and gastrointestinal issues. It’s important to obtain the right diagnosis. Research shows that many kids put on medication for ADHD, for example, are incorrectly diagnosed. The drugs are unnecessary, and therefore detrimental to their health.
Solution: Family therapist Marilyn Wedge suggests ruling out potential causes, such as food allergies or vision problems, before giving medication to kids with behavioural problems. She is one of many healthcare professionals who strongly advocate the use of natural therapies and complementary medicine – including acupuncture, herbs, aromatherapy, homoeopathy and flower remedies - rather than drugs, especially for pain relief. Psychotherapy has been shown to be just as effective than medication, if not more so. “For children’s physical ailments that result from stress or anxiety, family therapy, guided imagery and medication all really help,” Wedge notes.
Problem 6: The chemical maze
Children's developing brains and hormone systems are highly vulnerable to environmental toxins, especially:
* Formaldehyde: Furniture made from plywood, laminated wood or chipboard contains high levels of formaldehyde which can cause headaches, respiratory irritation and skin rashes. Furniture is also often coated in paint containing volatile organic compounds (VOC) that is harmful to the lungs.
* Flame retardants: Carpet backing, mattresses and foam furniture all contain flame retardant chemicals, which at high levels can potentially harm a child's development. Carpet also gives off carcinogens which trigger allergies and respiratory problems.
* Bisphenol A (BPA): This petroleum-derived compound is found in a wide range of plastics, including kid's cups, bottles and most toys. It mimics oestrogen in the body and has been linked to birth defects, cancer, abnormal genital development and early puberty.
* Skincare products: Shampoo, soap, moisturiser and other scented products commonly contain chemicals that can cause health problems ranging from skin irritation to cancer. The National Eczema Society has noted a remarkable rise in the number of children suffering from eczema - from just three per cent in the 1950s to one in five of today's children.
Solution: You'll never be able to avoid these toxins altogether, but you can limit your family's exposure to them. Choose solid-wood furniture with low or no VOC paint. Opt for hardwood floors instead of carpet, or choose a vacuum with a HEPA filter to minimise exposure to allergens. Go for mattresses made entirely from natural and organic raw materials, such as coconut fibres, lambswool or organic cotton. Avoid skin-care or cleaning products containing sulphates, preservatives, perfumes or petrochemicals. Choose phthalate and BPA-free bottles and toys, or those made from wood or organic cotton.