Teenagers may act like they’re all grown up, but as scientists — and their parents — can tell you, their adolescent brains are still maturing. Teens are still developing their prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of the brain involved in decision-making and using good judgment. All the more reason for parents to gently encourage their teens to start incorporating habits to keep both their bodies and minds healthy.
Here, pediatricians share some best practices to help kids establish the routines that will set them up for success this school year — and beyond.
Sleep on it
The average teenager needs about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night, though this can be challenging for some families given school, sports and social commitments. Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and medical editor for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ HealthyChildren.org, tells Yahoo Life that to make sure teens are getting a good night’s sleep, start with setting limits on certain activities.
“Stop screens and vigorous exercise an hour before bedtime,” suggests Shu. “Consider making the house darker after dinner time to help kids’ internal clocks know that it’s almost time to sleep.”
Dr. Andrew Doyle, a pediatrician with Wellstar Health System, suggests teens calculate what time they need to get to bed based on how early they need to get up in the morning for school. Then, stick to that routine. “So even if you have a day that you don’t have to go to school, whether it be the weekend or a day that you have off, don’t plan on that being a day to sleep in really late,” says Doyle. “You may not have to get up as early as you normally do, but don’t get up too much later than you normally would, so you can keep that cycle going.”
Get a move on
One way for teens to get a better night’s sleep is to get up and get moving during the daytime. Research shows for every extra hour of physical activity teens incorporate into their day, they will fall asleep earlier and stay asleep longer.
Doyle recommends that adolescents get at least 30 to 60 minutes of exercise per day, but it doesn’t have to be strenuous — or happen all at once. “Something as simple as just going for a walk around the block a couple of times, is a good way to start,” Doyle says. “You don’t have to go out and run a marathon or play some high-powered sport. The key is that they’re up and they’re moving and they’re active.”
Find the right balance
All of that physical activity requires kids to fill up their bodies with the right kind of fuel. Shu says healthy foods help keep blood sugar levels stable and energy levels high. And although you may not be able to get your teenager to give up their favorite junk food, just mixing in a few healthy choices can make a difference. “Consider following guidelines such as allowing one ‘treat’ per day or aiming for 80 percent healthy foods and 20 percent treat foods,” Shu advises. “Eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated are important both for physical health and paying attention and learning.”
But as parents know, getting teens to make changes can be tough. “What helps is getting them involved in making those choices,” says Doyle. “You can plan ahead and together decide what healthy snacks your child is interested in and wants to try.”
Make time for a checkup
During the pandemic, many medical offices were closed and appointments were canceled. Now that the school year has started, doctors are urging parents to get their kids back on track with their annual checkups. “If they haven’t been to see their doctor recently, especially with the pandemic, this is a great time to get back in,” says Doyle. “That will allow your provider or doctor to see your child, assess their needs, and talk about what would be good habits to build and start working on now.”
Doyle says teens should also get their flu shots. Because it takes about a month for immunity to kick in, he says getting the shot sometime in October will help protect teens when flu season peaks in December and January.
Just like adults, it can take time for teens to adopt healthier habits. But Doyle says the first step is simply talking with your child to find out what health goals they’re interested in and how they might want to achieve them. “Decide what the important ones are and do one or maybe two,” Doyle says. “If you try to do it all at once, then you probably are going to get the eyerolls — and you’re definitely not going to get the enthusiastic participation.”
Doyle adds: “Let them have a lot of say and control in the matter, and that will really be more effective in the long run.”