Health Features

Healthy Children, Healthy Family

Ask any parent you know, and they’ll say nothing is more important than raising happy, healthy kids. It’s the most precious and priceless job there is, and it’s a constant learning process as parents try to absorb the best advice they can find. There are lots of resources to help families avoid childhood health problems and to find help when learning and behavioral issues arise. Health professionals advise open, positive discussion about all of these subjects so problems can be prevented or dealt with early.

substance abuse
It’s one of parents’ most heart-wrenching fears—alcohol or drug addiction in their child or teen. The keys to preventing and addressing it are a supportive attitude and positive, two-way communication, health professionals say. “Prevention comes from an environment where kids feel valued, listened to and loved,” says Cassie Korte, a licensed professional counselor at Midwest Institute for Addiction. “Your relationship with your child is like a bank account; you make investments in it, and that affects what you can take out of it. Trust and attention fill up the account, and withdrawals happen when you lovingly confront behaviors and problems. When you haven’t made enough deposits of time and encouragement, you get a negative result.”

talk the talk
Dr. Robert Spewak of Southwest Pediatrics says early childhood is a good time to begin conversations about drugs and alcohol. “Kids will absorb what they see online and on TV at a young age,” he notes. “So it’s important to start an early, open discussion that’s nonjudgmental and positive. If your kids see you as stern and lecturing and don’t feel comfortable approaching you, you’ve already lost them in terms of communication.” He says parents should expect the same judgment-free attitude from any health professionals they turn to for help.

walk the walk
According to Spewak, another key line of defense against substance abuse is a good parental example. “Show them by your own actions that it’s important to make healthy choices,” he notes. “If you don’t smoke, use drugs or drink to excess, they will be less likely to.” It’s also important not to allow underage drinking in the home and to be consistent about enforcing family rules.

parent positively
According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a big difference between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘authoritative’ parenting, and it can influence whether kids develop substance abuse issues. Authoritarian parents use strict control without much warmth or responsiveness, but authoritative ones use positive, consistent discipline with a lot of communication and interaction. Children raised by authoritative parents tend to learn better problem solving and emotional skills, which can help them avoid alcohol and drug use. “Parents also should find the strength to admit their own mistakes in dealing with these issues,” Korte says. “When they are able to say, ‘I haven’t given you enough attention. I’m sorry, and I’ll do better,’ that can be very therapeutic for a child who is struggling. Open, congruent communication is key. If parents sugarcoat or tiptoe around substance abuse, they’re taking away from the seriousness of it. They need to express themselves honestly if they want their kids to do the same.”

Naturally, parents want their children to be physically active and healthy. But sometimes the line blurs, and kids end up feeling too much pressure to perform. That stress can cause health and motivation problems, according to Dr. Christian Verry, a Mercy family and sports medicine physician. He has three main piecesof advice for parents of young children: Don’t start them in sports too young, don’t push them too hard, and don’t make them specialize in a sport too early.

ages and stages
Verry says too much physical activity can take a toll on young bodies, especially during major growth periods. “The density of bones tends to be lower before and during a growth spurt, so they can’t handle stress as well,” he cautions. “From about age 6 to 10, bone density is good, the tendons are well established and cartilage is less susceptible to injury. But in pre-adolescent and adolescent years, growth plates open up and bone density goes down. Tissues like ligaments need time to catch up to lengthening bones, so they are not as strong during these phases. All of these things can increase injury risk.” Verry says blood supply to body tissues decreases during growth periods, also making them more susceptible.

avoiding problems
To help prevent damage, parents should make sure kids don’t overtrain, overcompete or constantly repeat the same motions. “Between sports seasons, build in several weeks of noncompetitive activity to allow the body some recovery,” Verry advises. “Also, monitor play to avoid overuse injuries. How many innings is your young pitcher throwing in a month? How many pitches is he taking in practice?” Consult a doctor to ensure sports schedules are appropriate, and consider enrolling kids in activities that exercise different parts of the body. Be alert to signs of mental burnout, too, Verry advises.

safe options
“Running is something everyone can do at their own level,” says Mona Langenberg, president of GO! St. Louis, a nonprofit that encourages physical fitness. “It doesn’t require practice, training or a set of skills, so it’s a great activity for families to do together. The key is to make it enjoyable for kids so it becomes a lifetime habit.” Langenberg says races and fitness programs sponsored by GO! St. Louis are carefully calibrated for age-appropriate engagement and fun instead of just competition. “Activity should make kids feel good about themselves mentally and physically,” she notes. “Sometimes, well-meaning parents try to push kids into races when they’re too young. We counsel them that our age limits are recommended by medical experts and intended for families’ safety.”

behavior and learning disability resources
If your child is facing a behavior issue or learning problem, you’re not alone, and compassionate, professional care is available in the St. Louis area. Knowing the right questions to ask is important both before and during your appointments.

» ask for help.
“The first step is a good, thorough evaluation by an experienced professional to find out why your child is having issues,” advises Dr. James Feinberg, a child and adolescent clinical psychologist in private practice. He says counselors, social workers, general psychologists, clinical psychologists and child clinical psychologists receive very different levels of training, so it’s important to find a professional with experience, compassion and specialization. “I discourage parents from choosing someone who sees people of all ages,” Feinberg notes. “Young kids and teens require different provider skill sets.”

» find a partner.
There are a number of behavioral health nonprofits and educational institutions that also can help kids and families restore balance. Great Circle provides specialized counseling and mental health services, Miriam operates schools and programs for kids with learning issues, and Thrive Autism Solutions helps families dealing with autism spectrum disorders. Hospital systems like Mercy, BJC HealthCare and SSM Health/SLUCare also offer services and referrals.

» listen and speak.
Liz Kinsella, program director at Thrive, says parents should pay attention when a teacher, daycare administrator or school counselor suggests a child may need help. Parents also should be assertive if their family doctor takes a ‘wait and see’ approach to a child with behavioral or learning problems. “Sometimes doctors worry about offending parents, but early intervention is key, especially for conditions like autism,” she says. “Show the doctor you’re comfortable talking about it so you don’t end up pushing back important care. The right diagnosis is the golden ticket to services that can really help.”