Tip Sheet: Building Healthy Families

Like any social structure, families are complicated. Luckily, whether a family is struggling to build healthy habits, reduce disruptive behaviors or encourage social-emotional development, DePaul’s faculty and staff experts in family research and therapy can help.

Associate Professor Jocelyn Carter, director of clinical training and director of the Healthy Families Lab, is interested in finding “new and innovative ways to improve physical health in children and adolescents, such as through physical activity interventions, focus groups, cooking classes and active video games.” In her community-based research, Carter has also sought to understand how cultural factors contribute to youth activity levels. Here, she shares ideas for families looking to build healthy habits.

Get Moving
Research shows that children and adolescents who are more physically active perform better in school, have higher cognitive functions and are found to be in better mood states. Being physically active also helps children and adolescents build healthy and active bodies. It is well established that being physically active in early childhood prevents obesity, both immediately and later as an adult. Most of our participants love exercising with their parents, and we love seeing them “compete” against each other.

Model a Healthy Diet
Improving your own diet can help your children learn more about what types of foods they should be eating, and it can help encourage them to try foods they may not otherwise be willing to try.

Serve Veggies
Having vegetables as a regular part of dinner can help to establish long-term healthy eating habits in children. At least one study found that vegetables served during dinner predicted higher intakes of vegetables five years later. Similarly, reducing the availability of unhealthy items, such as sugary drinks, can help establish healthy long-term habits as well. Treats are fine once in a while, but the bulk of each meal should include vegetables, fruit, proteins and whole grains.

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As director of the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) Clinic, part of DePaul Family and Community Services (FCS) in the College of Science and Health, Christina M. Warner-Metzger, PhD, guides families through techniques to improve relationships, reduce parenting stress and decrease children’s misbehavior. Caregivers wear personal listening devices as they play and interact with their child, which allows a therapist observing behind a two-way mirror to offer real-time coaching and feedback. Warner-Metzger, who is one of only 21 PCIT International Certified Master Trainers worldwide, says, “It’s a collaborative and supportive process as caregivers learn how to deepen the relational connection with their child while establishing important family and social boundaries.” She offers advice below. If you need additional support, contact FCS at (773) 325-7780.

Get Help ASAP
If your child’s behavioral or emotional difficulties are impacting his or her daily life at home or at school, early intervention is key. Children often do not “grow out of” serious behavioral issues, such as frequently defying adults, hurting others, throwing objects or destroying possessions, and causing disruptions in day care or a classroom setting. Left unchecked, behavioral and emotional problems may negatively impact social development, academic progress and family functioning.

Educate Yourself
There are conflicting messages in popular media regarding the best ways to help children develop socially, as well as how to parent a child who misbehaves or becomes emotionally dysregulated. PCIT has more than 45 years of research supporting the techniques used to help families regain balance. When seeking help for childhood issues, caregivers are encouraged to be informed consumers by visiting websites emphasizing scientifically based approaches, such as the Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology’s website.

Promote Playtime
Recent research indicates the importance of play for children’s brain and social skills development, including the long-term impacts of play on academic and emotional functioning. Because of our busy, technology-filled lifestyles, we often overlook the power of play. For healthy development, caregivers are encouraged to turn off the TV, tablet and smartphone, and instead create time within the family schedule to play with their child. Data show that five minutes of positive play between parents and children can make a profound difference in children’s behavior and life adjustment.

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Cecilia Martinez-Torteya, assistant professor of clinical psychology, is director of the Relational and Early Assessment Team (RELATe), another FCS program. Caregivers turn to RELATe when they are experiencing conflict with their child, when they feel overwhelmed with sadness or anxiety, or when their children have been exposed to violence or disruptions in caregiving. “We focus on early parent-child relationships because they are key influences for long-term child socioemotional functioning,” Martinez-Torteya explains.

Doctoral students in clinical psychology observe the family and identify parenting strengths and weaknesses based on an attachment-oriented framework. Through video feedback, the doctoral students walk caregivers through concrete examples to help them better understand and improve the parent-child dynamic. To promote a strong and healthy relationship with your infant, toddler or preschool-age child, try the strategies Martinez-Torteya recommends below.

Give Hugs
Engage in lots of verbal and physical affection! Your young child is learning about who they are and how relationships work—loving interactions help children see themselves as worthy and lovable, and promote close relationships.

Respond to Emotional Needs
Young children depend on their caregivers for co-regulation and support, even as they gain increased independence. Try to identify the ways your child lets you know he or she needs a moment of connection. Many children communicate this indirectly, so make sure you are responding to your child’s needs—is my child afraid and needing to be reassured? Is my child tired and needing some downtime? Is my child exploring a new environment and needing me to make sure he is safe?—even if they are not the same as their wants.

Practice Self-Care
Parenting a young child can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it can also be confusing, stressful and frustrating. Find strategies that help you feel better and get you through the difficult times. Try yoga, meditation, exercise, spending time with friends or whatever works for you.

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