Image by Tobias Brockow from Pixabay

 April 1, 2024

Section I

Teenagers and tweens are a challenge to any parent as they embark on their identity development. These are years filled with angst, joy, love and pain, as our kids develop physically, mentally, and emotionally. As we attempt to guide but not control, we struggle watching them make and maybe repeat obvious mistakes. We, so dearly, want them to make the right choices (in our mind) and respect their bodies. 

What can we do to help?

Dictating to teens will never work. They are more likely to sabotage their own lives in order to prove that they are in control. The tighter parents squeeze, the more the adolescent rebels. 

I think of this stage of parenting as motivational interviewing. We try to teach them while asking them what they are willing to do to be healthy. We can encourage positive choices by modeling the best behavior. Motivational interviewing is all about trying to meet someone where they are, in order to help them move forward. It is definitely not about moving forward from YOUR place. 

The goal is to help them make good decisions. If you try to impose your views, you will usually fail. 

Years ago, I embarked on a Love and Logic parenting technique course. It echoes these themes and provides parents with the emotional and psychological tools to promote self-governance and self-esteem, two critical aspects of growing up. What choices are important? What mistakes are we seeing in our teens in our teen clinic?

Nutrition is number 1. 

Teens are notorious for skipping breakfast then snacking on junk food and sports drinks. This is a recipe for emotional and energy disaster. Their brains were starved of nutrients all night and awaken needing food to function. Starving the body further causes hormones to kick in that release sugar from storage sites. Hunger signals soar and your teen is dying to eat at a time when food is not available in the classroom. The response from your teen is to reach for a Red Bull and a Pop Tart or some other junk food. They jolt their bodies with sugar in obscene quantities and feel a sugar high only to crash an hour later in a moody mess. 

This repeated effect spells disaster for learning and headaches for teachers. Not to mention the metabolic toll on the body over years of action.

Witness the effects of changing food quality in a school of troubled children in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Appleton Wisconsin Central Alternative High School changed the entire food delivery system by cooking most food in house and getting rid of all junk food/vending machine food. The result was an astounding reduction in troublesome behaviors!

Encouraging our teens to eat a healthy breakfast that contains protein, fat and healthy carbohydrates, requires us to be a part of their lives. We either must get up and prepare breakfast for them, or even better, teach them to do it for themselves. Oatmeal, eggs, bacon, smoothies, granola, Greek yogurt with nuts, bananas with sun butter are all examples of balanced, healthy breakfast choices. My wife worked hard on a book that provides a primer for parents to effectively tackle this problem. 

Sleep is number 2.

What does it mean to get appropriate sleep?

I should know. As a sleep-deprived resident, I was functioning at half speed after 24 hours of duty. To say this was difficult would be an understatement. Similar challenges are occurring with our youth. 

Most teenagers do not get enough sleep. Studies have found that the average adolescent needs nine hours of sleep to feel fully rested. How many teenagers get that? Teens are rapidly growing and require sleep almost like a newborn. The over scheduled life of a teen often leaves sleep deprived and struggling during school. 

A major concern of mine has been the early start time for some schools. Teens should be allowed to sleep until at least 7 am. High School start times should be 8 am at the earliest. 9 would be preferable for physiological reasons. Have you ever noticed that many 6-11 year olds are up at 630AM without a hitch but when they hit 13 that all changes. This is a normal occurrence in adolescence. 

I encourage parents to let their teens sleep in 2 or 3 extra hours on the weekend for catch up sleep. Sleeping till 11 or 12 AM can be counter productive as it makes it very difficult to get up at 7 or 8 on Monday. 

Tv's/phones and all electronics should be out of the bedroom. Period! Electronics and media devices are a sinkhole for time and compete with sleep to the detriment of the teen. I am a big fan of a kitchen device docking area. TV's should be in family rooms only. Help your teens govern their choices with a simple family device rule. Reasonable house rules are not controlling. They are loving. Pick the important battles to have as rules. 

Stress is number 3. 

Stress is a common theme throughout our lives. Teens have increased stresses because they are going through major psychological growth phases and learning the ins and outs of their sexual self. Without effective tools to handle these stresses, many teens develop anxiety and mood disorders. 

In the world of Integrative Medicine, stress is the root cause of most dysfunction in the human body. Handling stress is paramount to a healthy life. To that end, teaching teens how to journal, deep breath, exercise, meditate and talk to trusted mentors can change the path that they travel in these difficult years. 

Study after study is showing that stress causes alterations in the human gut mucosa/microbiome, which in turn is affecting the nervous system and is now linked to depression and anxiety. Reducing stress can prevent alterations in the gut and reduce nervous disorders. 

Remember that in recent weeks we have looked deeply into circadian biology. Sleep and rising with the sun are critical to cellular homeostasis.

Exercise is number 4. 

With the changes in school physical education policies and increased indoor video gaming, teens are more sedentary than ever. Exercise is critical to energy metabolism and good mood. Exercise helps increase glucose control, promote bone health, stimulate brain function, and establish healthy sleep patterns and so on.

If there is any one thing a teen can do to enhance their health, it is to exercise for 30 minutes every day where they break a sweat. I prefer team sports because it forces young adults to learn to interact with each other and develop trust in others to succeed. These are life skills that are disappearing in the world of texting break ups and cyber bullying. 

Even jogging for 30 minutes everyday will have a positive effect on one's health and attitude. I find that I do my best brainstorming while running. There is no one to cloud my mind and a free canvas from which to paint my life's desires.

Supplements is number 5. 

Cutting edge research is proving that we are woefully under nourished with minerals, vitamins and good gut microbes. Ideally we should get all of these nutrients from a whole foods diet. However, how many teens are pulling that off??? Not many. 

Therefore, I propose providing the missing pieces until the average teen is capable of consuming the needed nutrients from their diet. 

I am a big fan of whole food supplements like Garden of Life or Mega Foods vitamins. They are more aligned with a primarily plant based diet. Standard multivitamins from big box retailers are often synthetic and of dubious quality. 

Omega 3 fats from fish oil are an a supplement for brain health. I like pure fish oil in quantities based on body weight. Eating salmon, sardines or herring would be a great alternative. These also help with normal immune function and may reduce symptoms of many chronic diseases such as asthma and arthritis. 

This list is by no means exhaustive. Show your teen this list and ask, "which aspects of your life are you willing to work on and improve?" You can support their chosen endeavor by modeling 1-5 for them. 

We are always learning and changing. Never stop because that usually is the end. 

Be teen angst free,

Dr. M