October 15, 2012

How do you motivate your family?

The longest conversation you had with your teen recently was entirely through texting. Maybe you wish your youngest would turn off the video games and go outside to play with friends. Perhaps fries are among the only vegetables your kids willingly eat.

Whatever it is, you realize you've had enough and you want to make a change. But, how do you help your kids change their habits without seeming like you're nagging them (yet again)?

"Start by doing a bit of housekeeping," said Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, health psychologist with UW Health's Sports Medicine program. Mirgain recommends asking yourself questions like:

  • Are your food choices primarily healthy ones?

  • Do you turn to the TV as a way to "decompress' from the day?

  • Are you constantly checking email and reading messages on your phone or tablet?

  • Are you being as healthy as possible?

"We can only control ourselves," she said. "So if you're wanting to make changes within the family structure start by making those changes yourself."

Try encouraging the whole family to go for a walk after dinner. Create a "technology time-out" where everyone turns their smart phones, computers, games, tablets and televisions off for a period of time each day. Rearrange schedules and say "no" to requests in order to create family meal time a few times each week.

"Keep the focus on the family and what the family can do," said Mirgain. Singling out your child (or even your spouse) is a recipe for disaster.

"Focusing on what the child isn't doing, or reminding him or her to do certain things really puts the focus on what is not being done — he's not eating healthy, she's not exercising — and that can be very defeating," said Mirgain.

It can also lead to a power struggle. But, if parents help celebrate, acknowledge and even reward successes, no matter how small, it can set the stage for further change.

"Build on what's going well and brainstorm together for how to continue the momentum," said Mirgain.

Working together as a family and having fun can be rewarding for everyone. Preparing a meal together, going for hikes, taking a trip to the local farmer's market can be enjoyable experiences together and engage kids in activities without making it seem like a chore.

Also, help set the stage by bringing healthy foods into the home and eating in routinely. It's hard to tell a child to eat healthy foods when the kitchen cupboards are filled with treats.

It's also important to remember that change doesn't happen overnight. But, keeping it fun and keeping the focus on the family can help make sure it's a positive experience for everyone.