How are kids coping through COVID-19? They aren’t so different from adults. They’re bored, they’re comfortable eating, they miss their friends, they’re binging on their digital devices and they’re experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety.
Add to this the fact that the protracted disruption of in-person schooling means they are more sedate than ever, without the benefit of walking to school, engaging in gym class and extracurriculars and running around at recess. All these factors can contribute to pediatric weight gain that could have long-term impacts on children’s health, including increasing their risk for Type 2 diabetes mellitus and high blood pressure.
Good habits begin in childhood, which is why it’s important for parents to do what they can to help kids maintain a healthy weight and thus reduce the risk of obesity later in life.(The rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled in recent decades among preschool children, as well as those ages 12 to 19, and more than tripled among those ages 6 to 11.)
Example is the best teacher. As such, helping kids lead healthy lifestyles begins with parents who lead by example. Kids emulate what they see — so by being a good role model and eating well, exercising regularly and building healthy habits into your own daily life, you are providing your child with a solid blueprint for incorporating healthy habits that will serve them well and in the future. One of the best things you can do is to try to have as many family meals together as possible. The Childhood Obesity Foundation reports that the more meals a family eats together at home, the more likely the children are to eat fruit, vegetables, whole grains and calcium-rich food and beverages. Children and youth who eat at home are also more likely to feel connected to their family. They do better in school and are half as likely to run into problems with substance abuse as teenagers.
Many parents worry about whether they should intervene if their child gains weight during the pandemic. It’s important not to put the focus on dieting, restricting foods and calorie counting. For one thing, research shows that childhood dieting can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. And controlling what children eat can cause them to fixate more on the foods parents don’t want them to have. It helps to remember that some weight gain may have nothing to do with the pandemic since many children follow a growth pattern, especially around puberty, where they “round out” before they shoot up in height.
Instead, focus on helping your child have good habits, and focus on developing them yourself —balanced meals and healthy snacks (limit high-fat, high-sugar snacks and sugary beverages such as pop and sports drinks), getting enough sleep (which will be improved if digital devices are moved out of the bedroom) and regular movement (the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests kids move 60 minutes a day, which can be done in movement breaks throughout the day).
While it can be challenging to fit in physical activity at home, parents can take the lead by engaging in regular walks or hikes with their kids, without invoking weight loss as the goal. The fresh air and movement can give them a serotonin mood boost in addition to physical exercise. There are lots of creative options to engage in on the homefront — from TikTok dance routines to yoga videos. Cycling, skipping rope, playing catch and shooting hoops all offer the opportunity for kids to connect with their kids and it’s good exercise for adults too.
It’s also very important to encourage your kids to take care of themselves emotionally, and take care of yours! — help them talk about their feelings about the pandemic, ask them how they are doing and allow them to speak freely, whether it’s their fears for the future or the fact that they miss hanging out with their friends. Support their creativity and hobbies, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or journalling or cooking. Get them professional help if they seem depressed. When kids feel good about themselves and their lives, they are more likely to be both physically and mentally healthy.
In this way, they are a lot like adults.