Presented by Medical Park Family Care
As spring arrives in Alaska, parents are navigating increases in daylight, energy levels, and shifts in their kids’ needs and behaviors.
Yet this year, supporting children and teenagers’ health is “more important than ever,” said Dr. Michelle Laufer, a pediatrician at Medical Park Family Care in Anchorage.
Children and teenagers are facing unprecedented mental health challenges following two years of an isolating pandemic; the American Academy of Pediatrics recently declared a national mental health emergency for children, and a full 25% of families have sought mental health care for a child.
Laufer said mental health related issues in her patients are at an all-time high in her 22-years as a pediatrician.
Luckily, there are some simple and timely ways to help prioritize your family’s health.
Medical Park Family Care has been helping Alaska families thrive since 1971. In this article, the clinic offers tips and tools to help Alaska kids and teens through changing seasons and times.
Read on to explore practical, accessible, and useful tools you can put into practice to help your family.
In Alaska’s big outdoors, think small
Research consistently points to the health benefits of spending time in nature. But parents don’t need to plan a large excursion in order to enjoy Alaska’s outdoors.
“Keep it simple,” Laufer said. “Don’t do anything that feels overwhelming, because then it’s less likely to happen.”
For instance, pack a picnic and go to a park. Get outside more often, even if for less time, and your entire family will reap the rewards.
Reframe and make it fun
Parents may view exercise as an onerous chore. Children don’t need to feel the same way.
“Kids will naturally exercise,” Laufer said. “I just like to present it as fun ways to be together as a family.”
Reframing an activity in your mind, and to your child, will help to overcome negative associations, and you’ll be more likely to follow through.
A rude reality check
Additionally, if a child is struggling with obesity or lethargy, parents often default to thinking their child is “lazy,” Laufer said. Instead, focus on how your lifestyle affects your kids, as children model their parents’ behavior.
“That’s the hardest part of being a parent. Whatever you do, they’re going to do it,” Laufer said. “They’ll do the good things, and they’ll do the bad.”
If you struggle with staying active, try adding small, healthful activities to your day. Your efforts will ultimately help your entire family for years to come.
Keep it interesting, and keep snacks around
Help your kids stay active by creating novelty around smaller activities. For instance, when taking a walk, turn it into a scavenger hunt by asking “how many blue things can you find?” Laufer said.
Or, put on some rain boots and go on a puddle walk, letting your kids splash around to their hearts’ content. Take a walk on the beach, or try doing some gardening and plant some flowers outside with your kids.
No matter the activity, remember to bring snacks, and be ready to adapt to your child’s needs.
Changing seasons, changes in our brains
Some parents might notice kids acting up more than usual during spring time.
Alaskans face excessive darkness in winter months, which creates a sleep-inducing melatonin release in the brain. As sunlight returns, our brains begin producing more serotonin, and less melatonin, said Medical Park Family Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Desiree Cook.
More serotonin means more energy. But the weather is still “kind of all over the place,” Cook said, so getting kids outside can be a challenge.
“Now we have the sunlight and they don’t really know what to do with it,” Cook said. As a result, kids may exhibit undesired or hyperactive behaviors or irritability.
Hygiene is for sleep, too
Because of the extreme changes in daylight, sleep hygiene is extremely important in Alaska.
Routines matter, Cook said. Set a schedule, and remove artificial light before bedtime.
That includes powering down phones. Remember, kids aren’t always great at self-regulation, said, Dr. Jill Gaskill, family medicine physician at Medical Park Family Care.
Phone use is a privilege they can earn, Gaskill said, instead of being a given.
Improving sleep schedules may lead to temper tantrums, break downs, or pushback from kids and teens. But with consistency, and by emphasizing the positive, you’ll likely= make progress, Cook said.
The case for Taco Tuesdays
Just like for sleep, daily scheduled activities are hugely beneficial for families.
“Kids and families really do well with routines,” Laufer said. So implement a Tuesday Taco night, Friday Fun night, or a Sunday Scavenger hunt.
What matters is that it’s “something the kid can count on, and something fun you can do,” Laufer said.
Family time matters
“It sounds cheesy, but it’s incredibly important,” Cook said of family time. The simple act of eating dinner together every night will help build healthy family relationships. .
To motivate kids, keep it short and simple. For example, grab a pizza and head to Kincaid Park for dinner.
“Having new experiences together is nurturing for family relationships,” Laufer said.
Find your way to thrive
Stress is affecting parents and adults alike and it’s taking a toll.
Physical and emotion health are tied connected. “You can’t have one without the other,” Cook said.
It’s crucial for parents to get their kids out into the community, and work with them to establish healthy relationships.
With spring increasing energy levels, now is a great time to make that gentle push. “Everyone’s motivation is up,” said Cook. “Kids want to be active and they’re even more willing.”
“Now is really just the time to find your way to thrive again,” Cook said.
Getting teenagers back outside … of their heads
Teenagers have missed out on two years of growth and connection. “It’s been hard on the emotional and psychological development,” Gaskill said.
Teenagers “get so caught up in their head about what’s wrong with them or what’s different,” Gaskill said, and with this intense self-focus has come an influx of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
Encouraging kids to get out into the community can help. Group sports, music, and social activities are more important than ever.
With kids and teens, social experiences help to develop a sense of what is normal.
“We always think about (the benefits of) exercise, and going outside, but the additional element is (going with) someone else,” Gaskill said.
Strategies for talking to teens
Many online resources exist to help parents learn to talk to kids, Cook said. Check out a list of trusted sources at the end of the article.
Keeping a line of communication open with your teen – even if it’s just one parent in the household – is extremely important.
Never underestimate what spending time together can accomplish. “It helps build those relationships,” Cook said. “That’s really the biggest thing.”
Recognizing when to take the next step
Sometimes at-home solutions can only go so far. If your child or teen is struggling with excessive fear around social interactions, is failing school, or is irritable or withdrawn, it may be time to seek help from a professional.
“A health care provider is a good place to start,” Cook said.
Helpful Family Resources
Medical Park Family Care is a local and physician-owned clinic that has been caring for generations of Alaskans since 1971.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Medical Park Family Care. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.