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Dear Adina

How Do I Talk to My Child About Their Health Choices?

Adina Glickman


Dear Adina,

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?


Dear Parent,

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:

1. Pick and time your battles

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.

2. Think “harm reduction”

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.

3. Contextualize health as a family responsibility

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.

4. Be patient

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.

Yours,

Adina Signature

Have a question? Ask Adina

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching Group, which offers academic, life, parenting and career coaching. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at affinitycoachinggroup.com.
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    1 week ago
    CollegiateParent

    “Stop acting like a girl!”

    Words that I used repeatedly to “admonish” my eldest child when she was younger. How I wish I could take them back. How I wish I never uttered any one of them. How I wish I never felt the need to say such words. How I wish I never felt the need to make her feel anything but whole. How I wish…

    Last week during her final recital at the New England Conservatory of Music, she gave me accolades, lots of them. The audience gave me a special ovation and my heart was happy, but I didn’t miss it. While she praised me for supporting her music career from the jump, she didn’t mention my name when it came to her gender, her transition, and her true self.

    As I sit and write this, my heart is heavy and sad. It is filled with tears unshed, words unspoken, hugs ungiven, love unshared. I am filled with emotions. Why did I not affirm her when she was younger? Why was my heart closed to seeing her the way she really was? Why did I allow fear to reign and rain on me?

    It has been 2 years since my eldest child who was assigned male at birth shared about her non-binary gender and they/them pronouns, and 5 months since she shared about her transgender identity and she/her pronouns. And 2 weeks since she shared her new name with me.

    Even though I am relieved because it is all now out in the open, I am still sad, and in mourning. I am scared stiff about the unknown. She has begun transitioning, taking her Estrogen pills and Testosterone blockers. She is “finally free” to be her real self as she said in her closing speech. I can never imagine what that must feel like.

    I cannot even begin to envision what it means to finally live free! She said the other day on the phone that our home was very transphobic when she was a child. I wish I had never played a role in that. But I did. And that is why with tears rolling down my cheeks, I implore you to read these words with an open heart.

    You are a vessel to bring your child into this earth. You are their first love, and they are an extension of your heart. Loving them is a must. Understanding that they are individuals is a must. Allowing them to become who they are is a must.

    Be careful not to think or plan too far ahead. Enjoy their here and now. Rethink the thoughts you allow in your head, the words you say out of your mouth, and the way you act and treat them in your home.

    Several days ago, I sent her a text message where I told her just how proud I am of her and her insistence on living her truth regardless of what anyone else thought.

    I ended the text with “I just want you to know that I have always wanted a daughter”, to which she replied “You have always had a daughter”.

    By Dr. Lulu
    ... See MoreSee Less

    “Stop acting like a girl!”  Words that I used repeatedly to “admonish” my eldest child when she was younger. How I wish I could take them back. How I wish I never uttered any one of them. How I wish I never felt the need to say such words. How I wish I never felt the need to make her feel anything but whole. How I wish…  Last week during her final recital at the New England Conservatory of Music, she gave me accolades, lots of them. The audience gave me a special ovation and my heart was happy, but I didn’t miss it. While she praised me for supporting her music career from the jump, she didn’t mention my name when it came to her gender, her transition, and her true self.  As I sit and write this, my heart is heavy and sad. It is filled with tears unshed, words unspoken, hugs ungiven, love unshared. I am filled with emotions. Why did I not affirm her when she was younger? Why was my heart closed to seeing her the way she really was? Why did I allow fear to reign and rain on me?  It has been 2 years since my eldest child who was assigned male at birth shared about her non-binary gender and they/them pronouns, and 5 months since she shared about her transgender identity and she/her pronouns. And 2 weeks since she shared her new name with me.  Even though I am relieved because it is all now out in the open, I am still sad, and in mourning. I am scared stiff about the unknown. She has begun transitioning, taking her Estrogen pills and Testosterone blockers. She is “finally free” to be her real self as she said in her closing speech. I can never imagine what that must feel like.  I cannot even begin to envision what it means to finally live free! She said the other day on the phone that our home was very transphobic when she was a child. I wish I had never played a role in that. But I did. And that is why with tears rolling down my cheeks, I implore you to read these words with an open heart.  You are a vessel to bring your child into this earth. You are their first love, and they are an extension of your heart. Loving them is a must. Understanding that they are individuals is a must. Allowing them to become who they are is a must.  Be careful not to think or plan too far ahead. Enjoy their here and now. Rethink the thoughts you allow in your head, the words you say out of your mouth, and the way you act and treat them in your home.  Several days ago, I sent her a text message where I told her just how proud I am of her and her insistence on living her truth regardless of what anyone else thought.  I ended the text with “I just want you to know that I have always wanted a daughter”, to which she replied “You have always had a daughter”.  By Dr. Lulu

    Comment on Facebook

    Your daughter’s smile in this picture is everything!

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