How do you talk to your child about choices they are making that might affect their long-term health — smoking, overeating, etc.? Do you just trust that they will figure it out?
How many life coaches does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but the light bulb has to really want to change.
It only takes one parent to help their child make better choices, but the child has to want to. So let’s talk about motivation.
Humans are problem solvers. Everything we do, and everything our kids do, is usually motivated by an effort to solve a real or perceived problem. So if we start with the question of what motivates the overeating, smoking, etc. we can approach a typically heavy-handed conversation in a radically different angle.
By asking, “What does the smoking, overeating, etc. do for you?” (what problem are they trying to solve), you start with the assumption that your child is trying to do something good for themselves even though it’s risky or creates other problems. Most “bad habits” make us feel better in some way, even though they also make us feel bad in others.
Your child may be happily surprised that you're starting with an interest in the “good” things this “bad” thing brings them and be more open to talking. Because in all likelihood, they know all about the bad things. But they wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t bring something good along with it. So find out what that is.
Our own moral judgments can get tangled up in our parental worry, so one of the hardest things about talking to our kids about their wellbeing is that they have insanely potent radar for disapproval. What you intend as benign advice or loving concern may be heard as disappointment, condemnation or even outright criticism. Finding a way to say, “Dude, those eleven bags of chips you eat every day may have something to do with your zits?” without humiliating and alienating said dude is a rough road to travel.
So here are some guidelines:
No serious discussions after dark. Conflicts don’t have to be resolved Right Now.
Before approaching anything, step back from it and decide if it’s so pressing it can’t wait because you need relief from the worry, or because there’s truly a pivotal moment that warrants immediate attention. Unless there is imminent danger, wait until you’re not riled up.
And remember that just because you’re ready doesn’t mean your child is. So ask if it’s a good time to talk. Also, don’t call out the small stuff. If it’s a choice between confronting the zits or having a conversation about dude’s driving without a seat belt, leave the junk food alone and concentrate on helping him see that he won’t have any chips in his future if he’s dead in a ditch.
The enemy of better is best. Even though the best thing is to quit smoking, vaping, drugging, drinking, overeating, etc., when it’s beyond reach (or simply unwanted) then minimizing the harm is where to put the energy.
Try and find the least toxic vaping supplies; pay attention to not mixing drugs or using drugs whose purity you can't be sure of; if you’re eating for comfort, try some that have whole grains (they actually make you feel fuller); if you’re gonna drink, get a Lyft home.
By taking the moral judgment out of the conversation and simply focusing on what your child can do to minimize the damage they may be incurring, you are an ally in their health rather than an adversary in their self-determination.
If you are worried about your student's drinking or drug use, the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline can connect you with local referrals and resources, including support groups.
If high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc. run in your family, present any thoughts about your child’s health in that context. It sucks, but there it is and it’s no one’s fault.
Your adopted or foster children may have mysteries about their health risks, so the unknowns make it that much more important to err on the side of caution. Empathy for the frustration of not knowing is important.
Another way to contextualize health as a family matter is to make your child aware of the impact their decisions have on their siblings and other family members. Without laying a whole guilt trip, like they’re responsible for little Henry’s troubles in school, it’s fine to say that their family relationships may not matter to them right now, but that won’t always be the case.
Growth and change take time. In most cases, teens outgrow their interest in self-destructive behaviors as they mature and begin to feel more agency and purpose in their lives. At some point, they’d rather spend their $40 to take hottie out for dinner than spend it on weed.
Aging shifts priorities, but every week, month or year of that aging process takes just as long as it did when they were learning to communicate, walk and play the sax. Learning to be a grown up takes just as long and just as much practice.
And be patient with yourself. I’m a big fan of the do-over. Have a conversation that goes off the rails, ends in tears or slammed doors? Reflect, regroup, and if you can see what you might do differently to help the discussion stay open and productive, ask for a do-over. You’ll be surprised at how much empathy your child has for your mistakes when you have shown your empathy for theirs.