What's the best way for a parent who's been away for weeks or months to bond with a young child? And how can adults help kids safely lose weight? Columnist Victoria Clayton answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? Send it to us at email@example.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.
Q: I'm in the military and have spent more than a year in Iraq. Soon I will be returning to my 19-month-old daughter and I'm wondering what I should do to help the two of us bond again?
A: Believe it or not, when parents reunite with their children after a prolonged absence -- be it a tour of duty in Iraq or even a prolonged business trip or hospital stay -- it’s more about what they don’t do rather than what they do, says Dr. Karen J. Miller, a developmental-behavioral specialist at the Center for Children with Special Needs at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston.
The No. 1 thing you don’t want to do is have high expectations for a Hallmark-worthy reunion. “Especially with a really young child, the parent who is returning has to remember that he or she isn’t a familiar person,” says Miller.
At 19 months, your daughter is probably in the developmental stage where she is very shy with strangers. And, through no fault of your own, you’re essentially a stranger to her right now.
There is good news, though. Young children live almost solely in the here and now. They are really only familiar with the few key family members or caregivers they see consistently. So once your daughter sees you again on a regular basis, you will also rather quickly join the ranks of her familiar touchstones.
To help facilitate this, don’t overwhelm her, advises Miller. “Let her explore and acquaint at her own pace and adjust gradually,” she says. Your job is simply to be warm, friendly and present.
Become part of their everyday life
For children of any age, instead of trying to plan spectacular outings or big family events to make up for lost time, it’s more important to become a part of their everyday life again. This will help everyone reconnect. Ask your spouse which tasks you might take over when you’re back, such as feeding the baby breakfast, giving baths or driving the older children to school.
The key is to take over some everyday events but to do it in a way that respects the routine established by the stay-at-home parent. So if your spouse has been giving baths at 7 p.m. for the past year and always does it a certain way, do the same. Children thrive on routine. Your family will do much better if their routine doesn’t change all that much when you’re back.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t carve out special time for your children, though. You should. In fact, returning parents who have several children should make it a priority to have one-on-one time with each child, says Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. But you might find that you reconnect with your child best when you do little things like bring him or her along to the hardware store.
Wallace also notes that returning parents should be aware that older children will likely have mixed emotions. “They may be happy you’re back but also feel angry or betrayed that you were gone for so long,” she says.
Be patient and tell them you realize they may be angry. Underneath the anger, of course, is sadness and yearning. “Self protection gets involved,” says Wallace. “They may resist accepting you because they’re scared you might leave again.”
Try to put their worries to rest, if possible. If you know you won’t be going away soon, make sure they know this and also know that you, too, were sad without them.
Lastly, don’t forget to reconnect with your spouse. "Get a baby-sitter and plan to go out together alone," says Miller. "The family is a unit and the health of the family unit hinges on the parents’ relationship.”
Tackling child obesity
Q: How does a parent of an obese pre-teen address the problem without traumatizing her or promoting an eating disorder?
A: There's much greater risk in allowing a child to remain obese than in being up front with her about the issue, says Donna Spruijt-Metz, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Institute of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention in Los Angeles.
Obesity in kids is an epidemic, and it has dire social and health consequences, putting youngsters at risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, joint conditions and many other problems.
Of course, eating disorders like anorexia can also be devastating. But kids are much more likely to have problems with weighing too much than too little, notes Spruijt-Metz, who recently completed a study showing that 50 percent of middle-school children in Los Angeles are overweight or obese. A national study of high school students conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 26 percent fell into this category.
And weight issues can be discussed in an honest way that shouldn't traumatize a child, experts say. Parents can explain, for instance, how eating affects health. So if your daughter hits a growth plateau and starts packing on pounds -- common in adolescence -- it’s appropriate to sit down with her and explain that her body isn’t burning the calories it once was and that means she needs to eat a little less and exercise more.
The weight-loss equation is surprisingly simple: calories in must be fewer than calories burned.
Of course, there are countless ways you can facilitate children losing weight, including having the whole family commit to exercise by joining a gym/recreation center or making regular dates for family bike rides or hikes.
Then there are some of the sneakier ways -- little choices you make everyday that could mean your child will unwittingly shed pounds. For example:
- Don’t drive around and hover for the closest parking space. Park further away and everyone will have to walk.
- Start cooking healthy, lower-calorie foods at home. Stock the fridge with fruits and vegetables instead of chips, cookies and soda.
- Raise heck with junk food-promoting schools. According to Spruijt-Metz, far too many schools and school organizations are still selling high-calorie, low-nutrition junk food on campus in vending machines, as school lunch options or as fund-raisers for trips. And if the junk food is there, kids will eat it. If your booster club sells Krispy Kremes during lunch and study halls, it’s time to make a call to the principal or PTA and find out what can be done about it. At the very least, says Spruijt-Metz, you can personally refuse to take part in any fund-raiser that involves parents selling junk food to kids.
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the forthcoming book "Fearless Pregnancy," due out in November from Fair Winds Press.