If you are the parent of a teenager or a professional who works with teenagers, you know how challenging those adolescent years can be. Amidst enormous physical and emotional change and development, adolescents are also testing their independence, forming their identities, expanding their social lives and experimenting with new behaviors. These opportunities for growth can carry risk of unhealthy choices; many teens end up struggling with obesity or eating disorders, substance use, unsafe sexual activity, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, school problems and low mood. Adults can help promote better health for the teenagers in their lives.
Encourage exercise. Fitness is one of the fundamental building blocks of good teen health. Exercise is associated with more positive mood, improved sleep, better concentration and productivity and higher self-esteem. If your teenager is active in sports, support his efforts; if not, suggest other ways to be active, such as biking with friends, walking or running with the family dog, taking a recreational sports or fitness class or even playing an active video game, such as one of the new interactive yoga or sports games on the market. Model physical fitness by being active yourself, and plan family activities around opportunities to be active.
Make nutrition a priority. Many teens rely on vending machine snacks, fast food and on-the-go sugary sports drinks or sodas for fuel during the day. These foods do not provide lasting energy or the nutrients teenagers need for proper growth and development. Educate the teenagers in your life about healthy food choices and proper portion sizes, encourage them to choose complex carbohydrates and lean protein for snacks -- for example, low-fat string cheese with whole-grain crackers, or raw veggies dipped in hummus -- and make sure healthy foods are available at home.
Limit your teenager's screen time and media exposure. It's tough to keep adolescents away from television and online media these days. Excessive media exposure can negatively influence teenagers' nutrition, body image and health. In addition, too much screen time leads to a sedentary lifestyle that can promote obesity and other health problems.
Keep the lines of communication open with teenagers. Teens are influenced by their parents' behaviors and values. Other adults in their lives are important influences, too. The more you talk openly with your teens about avoiding unsafe health practices and instead choosing healthy behaviors, the more influential you can be with them. It can be tempting to avoid discussing difficult issues with teenagers, but resist the temptation and start the conversation. Communication is key.
Consult your family physician or pediatrician, a mental health professional or your child's school counselor if you have concerns about your teenager's behaviors or health.