How to Tackle Your Teen’s Bad Health Habits

It’s hard enough for you to eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and manage stress. Forget about trying to persuade your teen to do the same. You’re lucky if they crack a smile in the morning, let alone shower, brush their teeth and leave for school on time. So we asked doctors how they talked their own teenagers into adopting healthier habits. It turns out that with some strategic thinking, a slight surrender of control and, OK, a tiny bit of bribery, all things are possible.

Involving my kids in setting rules ended deodorant debates.

Some adolescents don’t think twice about skipping deodorant, re-wearing gym clothes and sleeping in a bedroom that smells like feet. Ellen Rome, MD, head of adolescent medicine at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, stands by three household rules: Showers happen every day, daily deodorant use begins as a tween and clothes must pass the “parent sniff test” before they’re worn again. Even better, together you can come up with consequences for noncompliance, says Rome. If your kid’s sense of smell seems, ahem, challenged, she suggests letting them pick out a deodorant and framing your request in a positive light: “I love you and want you to succeed. Just like I always made you brush your teeth when you were younger, now at this age, I need you to ‘own’ applying deodorant and showering daily.”

RELATED: How to Teach Teens to Respect Parents

A family accident convinced my kids to wear bike helmets.

teen riding bike and wearing helmet

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

“I hear odd arguments about how ineffective a helmet may be in a significant impact, but my wife was spared a severe head injury from a bike accident because she had a helmet on,” says Dipesh Navsaria, MD, a pediatrician in Madison, WI. The shell of her helmet—not her skull—cracked in half, and her injury was kept to a moderate concussion. Navsaria made wearing a helmet an expectation when his kids were young and he didn’t let up. “We are more likely to do something if we feel like it was our idea or our choice, so letting your child pick out their helmet within set parameters—U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standard and a price limit—is really useful,” adds Navsaria. Buying a collapsible helmet or a bag designed for stashing a helmet might also help. When meeting with adolescent patients, Navsaria points out that after all the time and effort they’ve invested in their brain at school, why wouldn’t they want to protect it?

ALSO SEE: The Life Skills and Other Benefits Teens Get from Working During Summer Break

Bargaining helped me get my teen to wear sunscreen.

teen applying sunscreen

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

To teens, skin cancer seems as likely as getting struck by lightning, and sunscreen is just another thing for mom to nag you about. “My 13-year-old daughter wanted nothing to do with chalky white sunscreen but was very excited to jump into the world of makeup,” says Rebecca Tung, MD, chair of the division of dermatology at Loyola University Chicago. “After many arguments, she got her wish. She could wear my choice of broad-spectrum sunscreen mixed in with her choice of foundation to make it blend better.” Teens crave autonomy, so giving them a choice in the matter can go a long way. You could also try thinking beyond traditional thick, greasy formulas to find one that your kid doesn’t mind wearing. Boys (and girls who go au naturel) may prefer gel or spray-on sunscreens. Tung suggests putting non-comedogenic sunscreen (which won’t cause acne) into workout bags, bathrooms and cars so it’s always handy.

RELATED: Everything You Need to Know About Sunscreen

I found four tools to keep my teenagers from staying up late.

Teens naturally want to stay up (don’t blame them—it’s their circadian rhythm), but school and other early morning commitments get in the way. “I talked to my kids about all the positives of a good night’s sleep as well as what happens when you don’t get enough,” says Jess Shatkin, MD, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and pediatrics at NYU Langone Health. “Then I bought heavy curtains and good eye masks—convex ones that let you blink—and had them download f.lux on their laptops and use Night Shift on their iPhones.” Shatkin, author of Born to Be Wild, and his wife also made it clear that while they wanted their kids to do well in school, they didn’t want them to stay up all night to get straight As. Aim to keep the few hours before bed calm (as best as you can!), and consider a white-noise machine if there’s loud noise near bedrooms. When sleep is a priority for the whole family, kids learn it’s important and realize how much better they feel when they’re well rested.

I got my teens to lower the volume by explaining long-term effects.

Listening to music is an excellent way for teens to de-stress, but not if they blast it loud enough and long enough. “When talking to my own children about loud music, I start with the why and how it can damage our hearing,” says Joscelyn R.K. Martin, AuD, instructor of audiology at Mayo Clinic. “I also tell them about people I’ve seen who had a noise exposure that caused hearing loss and ended up as my patients in the hearing aid practice.” She reminds her kids that this type of hearing loss can’t be reversed and while hearing aids may help, they’re never the same as your own natural hearing. The good news is that teens can take steps now to prevent it.