The 7 Habits Of Kids (and Parents) Who Stay Healthy For Life

Keep your kids healthy and happy and you'll stay that way, too.

active family parents and children walking together for picnic Halfpoint / Shutterstock

One of our top jobs as a parent is to help our children build habits that will keep them healthy for life. And since children learn from their parents, we can’t just tell them, we have to show them too.

Luckily this is much easier than it sounds because healthy habits aren’t about pain and denial. They actually incorporate a lot of fun, sleep, play, and laughter.

The habits below are based on a wider vision of well-being that goes beyond eating and exercise to view health as a function of nervous system flexibility. A flexible nervous system allows you to move easily between activation and relaxation. This not only supports healthy body processes like digestion and immunity but also allows you to maintain healthy social contact and be open to creative solutions when engaged in problem-solving.


So what do healthy habits look like in real life? And how can we as parents best model what we hope our children will learn?

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Here are seven habits that contribute to lifelong health

1. Managing your own emotions and self-soothing

When discussing healthy habits most parents jump immediately to food and movement but this puts the cart before the horse. The often overlooked but essential basis to health is the ability to live in and listen to your body.


This is called neuroception and it’s an especially important skill for adults to model for children because it’s our job to help them regulate as their nervous systems mature. When a child learns to live in their body they can easily identify if they are hungry or tired, lonely or angry, or something else.

The next step is then to help children build skills for self-soothing so that they don’t need to turn to food or other substances to regulate emotions. If self-soothing skills weren’t modeled for you growing up, it’s time to develop them for yourself and a coach or counselor can be a big help.

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2. Prioritizing sleep and play 

Another overlooked basis for health is sleep and downtime. It’s hard, if not impossible, to make healthy choices when you’re tired and that goes for parents and children. When life gets overwhelming sleep time is often the first thing sacrificed. If that describes you or your family, it’s time for a rethink.


And sleep isn’t the only kind of rest we need. Researchers have identified multiple types of rest including mental, emotional, and sensory, as well as physical. The good news is that laying around doing nothing but daydreaming is an important contributor to health. 

In addition to sleep and rest, unstructured time for play and creative pursuits is important. Physical play, crafts, games, hair braiding…it’s all good. The research is full of ways that play and creative pursuits relax the body and allow access to areas of your brain that contribute to work and school success. Even a limited amount of video or electronic gaming has benefits, as does good old boredom.

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3. Enjoying physical activity and nature

The world’s healthiest, longest-living people don’t work out in a gym. Instead, they have an active lifestyle that most often includes time outside moving any part that is capable.


Time in nature seems to provide specific additional health benefits beyond movement. Get outside with your children, explore, walk places, play informal games or sports, bicycle, swim, or garden together (even if it’s a few pots on a balcony). If you’re inside try jumping around, dancing to upbeat music, partnered stretching, or a wiggle contest.

Whatever you do, make it fun and not a chore. The gym or organized sports are great if you and your children enjoy those activities and you’re capable. If not, find other ways to enjoy movement.

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4. Spending time with friends and family who bring you joy

The ability to build and maintain social connections is vital to our health and longevity. In fact, loneliness has a worse effect on health than cigarette smoking. Therefore, spending time together with family and friends is one of the healthiest things you can do.


Time with others provides social-emotional learning that is vital for success in school, work, and life. And it is often simultaneously spent in other healthy ways such as in nature, playing, or moving.

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5. Eating nutritious foods and accepting your body

We all know that vegetables have a different nutritional contribution than cookies, However, it’s important to allow all foods and not to demonize any. The reason is that we naturally want exactly what isn’t allowed.

It may be hard to believe but in the absence of restrictive food rules, children, and adults too, will learn the foods that are healthiest for their bodies. Rather than focusing on individual food choices, try focusing on how hunger and fullness feel in the body. And remember that it’s normal for children to go through picky eating phases.


Along with this be sure you are modeling body acceptance. Teaching your children to appreciate their body for how it serves them rather than how it looks is a good place to start. And if body acceptance is difficult for you this is another place where a coach or counselor can help.

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6. Practicing gratitude and awe

It’s human nature to focus on problems. That negativity bias is likely what kept your ancient ancestors alive but working actively to build in some positive emotion will go far toward supporting health.

Turning the focus at times toward the good in life provides balance. That is why zooming out from life’s problems to connect with gratitude, awe, nature, and the universe, as well as spiritual or religious beliefs, is a very healthy practice. Note that this isn’t about pushing away negative emotions with fake positivity but about seeing a bigger picture, putting things into perspective, and being in contact with what is greater than ourselves.


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7. Acknowledging mistakes and accepting 'good enough'

A final essential healthy practice is to model the idea of “good enough” by teaching children to accept and learn from mistakes and failures.

As parents, we can learn from the concept of the “good enough mother” originating with British pediatrician Donald Winnicott. In his research, Dr. Winnicott found that mothers who allowed themselves to make mistakes and model repairing relationships were actually better than “perfect” mothers. The more we can model acceptance of mistakes and failures the more we will raise compassionate children who aren’t afraid to try new things or to apologize when they mess up.

The bottom line is that more fun and less stress lead to greater health and well-being. So stack and combine these habits as best you can, take time to chill, and be ok with your shortcomings. Health can and should be pleasurable and delicious, not a chore.


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Lisa Newman, MAPP, is a positive psychology practitioner, health coach, and certified intuitive eating counselor.