Raising healthy children: mind-body connection (part III)

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By Gregory Ramey, PhD, child psychologist at Dayton Children's and Dayton Daily News columnist

Edition: March 9, 2008 | Topic: Healthy lifestyles

Raising healthy children requires a focus on youngsters' mental as well as their physical health.

The connection between one's mental and physical health has been well documented with adults. Increased levels of stress have been linked to a greater likelihood of heart diseases, cancers, accidents, pulmonary diseases and a variety of other physical problems. Your mind and body are connected. Problems in one domain affect the other.

While there are many attributes of positive mental health, there is one characteristic that appears most important when it comes to maintaining good physical health - a positive sense of empowerment. Parents should strive to raise children who are victors not victims, dealing with stress in a positive and active manner.

Stress is an inevitable part of our lives. Some events may be minor, like being delayed at an airport. Other events can be more traumatic, lika a divorce or death. How is it that some people deal effectively and efficiently with stressful events while others become upset, anxious or incapacitated?

What exactly is a stressful event?

I've been spending lots of time in airports lately, and it's interesting to observe people's reactions when a plane is delayed. Some folks become aggressive, agitated and almost despondent. At the other extreme, I work in a hospital with nurses and others who routinely care for sick and dying children, and do so with grace and good humor. How can they maintain such a positive outlook under intensely stressful conditions?

This all has to do with whether you approach life as a victim or a victor. Victims see themselves as constantly under siege, dealing with life's incessant problems and injustices. When bad things happen, they tend to exaggerate their significance and respond as helpless victims to a hopeless situation.

Victors encounter the same disappointments and problems, but perceive them differently. Victors are able to distinguish the mundane from the significant. They don't feel the same level of stress as others because they have a healthy sense of perspective that a two-hour delay for a plane trip has no cosmic importance. When faced with stress, victims whine whereas victors work the problem and seek a solution.

Parents can teach this positive sense of empowerment to their children at an early age.

This five-stage process can be used with preschool children as well with adults.
  1. Define the problem in an actionable way. Your daughter brings home a bad report card, complaining that her teacher doesn't like her. Perhaps she is correct, but her definition of the problem is unlikely to lead to any positive actions. Help kids define problems in ways where action is possible. Challenge their "victim" way of thinking at an early age.
  2. Consider lots of alternatives. Empowered people think of all kinds of ways to deal with problems. They don't restrict themselves to searching for the one perfect solution. This will take lots of work with your child. Kids typically will say the one thing they think you want to hear. Try this. In response to any problem, ask them to list at least three different ways to deal with it. Keep using this "rule of three" as they get older.
  3. Carefully consider each alterative. Kids are impatient and seek quick answers to problems. Require them to think through each alternative, voicing something good and bad about each possible solution.
  4. Take action. Don't talk endlessly about the situation. Try something, and see if it works. There is rarely a perfect answer to any problem. Remember, you are trying to make things better, not perfect.
  5. Evaluate your actions, and don't give up. This is probably the most important characteristic of positively empowered individuals. They fail as much as the rest of us, but they persist anyway. Failure elicits more efforts, not gloom.
In my thirty years of clinical work, I've noticed a change in children's ability to deal with failure as a normal part of life. A sense of entitlement has left many youngsters unable to persist when confronted with failure. This lack of emotional resilience results in many kids adopting a victim way of thinking about the world, leaving them vulnerable to both mental and physical problems.

Raising healthy children may be one of the most important jobs we have as parents. While we appropriately focus on our children's physical health, also remember to teach them skills to maintain their mental health as well.

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Dr. Ramey Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at The Children's Medical Center of Dayton. For more of his columns, visit www.childrensdayton.org/ramey and join Dr. Ramey on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/drgregramey

©2010 The Children's Medical Center of Dayton. Columns may be reproduced with the permission of Dayton Children's.


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