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Independence in Self-Care 

When does a child become responsible for their own well-being, like health and personal hygiene? It’s a loaded question. The answer is personal and unique to each family. As parents, we want to make sure our children are healthy, but it’s also important to help them grow into independent adults who can take care of themselves. Lay the foundation for this self-reliance early by helping your children form habits that facilitate wellness in the following ways.  

First, The Basics 

Essential self-care tasks such as brushing teeth, washing hands, showering, and toilet training are often a focus with very young kids. Gradually transition from doing all of this for your children, to doing it with them, to eventually letting them go on their own. This way, they learn valuable skills that will serve them throughout their lives.  

Don’t miss opportunities to help kids understand ‘the why’ behind these simple daily actions. We don’t brush our teeth just because mom says we have to – we do it because we’re taking care of a vital part of our body that affects the well-being of many other organs. We don’t just wash our hands because dad says we should – we do it because hand hygiene protects us and our community from illness.  

Self-Knowledge and Self-Advocacy 

Oftentimes, our busy lives teach us to ignore pain and just get through it. This can be a harmful habit that we may pass on to our children. To avoid this, we must consciously teach them to listen to their bodies and address physical concerns smartly when they arise. Even something as simple as noticing a mild headache and asking, “When is the last time I drank water?” is a good example of self-awareness. We can teach this to our children to help them be in control of their physical health.   

In more serious cases, the ability to notice pain or irregular sensations and seek medical guidance can lead to timely illness diagnoses and ongoing bodily maintenance. Help your children develop habits of self-awareness and self-advocacy when they feel “off” by modeling this skill and asking them about their physical well-being regularly. Children with chronic conditions especially should know and understand the symptoms, possible complications, and treatment of their conditions as much as they are able.  

Moderation and Balance 

Another way to foster health independence in children is to explain the importance of moderation and balance in all things. For instance, when it comes to nutrition, teach kids about portion control and healthy options. This can be done without harsh criticism of less nutritious food because we don’t want to promote negative food associations. Instead, we can educate children about moderation and balanced diets. This will allow them to make wise eating choices in the future.  

Similarly important is the balance between physical exercise and sedentary activity. It’s helpful for young kids to learn the limits of their bodies – to mindfully rest when they’re tired and to get up and move when they’ve sat for too long. These may seem like natural, instinctual things. However, children still need adult guidance to recognize them as vital parts of their physical health.  

Awareness of Surroundings 

Playing outside may not be as popular these days as it was in the past, but basic physical safety skills are still important to learn. Looking both ways before crossing a street, checking your surroundings when out in a public place, watching out for cars, noting stacked heavy objects, etc. All of this contributes to children’s developing positive practices of self-care.   

Depending on where your family lives and the type of lifestyle you all lead, some of these obvious skills may not be naturally learned as children grow up. In that case, these skills need to be purposefully taught and discussed with kids.  

Digital Literacy 

Finally, today’s day and age is rife with dangers on the internet. Misinformation can be just as harmful as ignorance when it comes to health, so it’s a good idea to teach kids to evaluate what they encounter online. Health fads can be tempting to believe and follow because they often offer miraculous solutions to everyday problems. However, a lot of the time, popular influencers can provide misleading information that is not rooted in science. No internet persona is a replacement for a licensed medical professional.  

(Check out our advice for fostering independence in mental self-care LINK, too!) 

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About the Expert 

headshot of Dr. Christina Johns

Dr. Christina Johns is a nationally recognized pediatric emergency physician and Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care. An official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, she is board-certified in both pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine. With extensive media experience, the proud mom of two teenagers shares over 20 years of pediatric expertise with patients and families everywhere. Follow Dr. Johns for more insights on children’s health!