THE TRYING, I MEAN ADOLESCENT, YEARS
My oldest son is about to turn 12, and I am getting a first taste of what is to come. This will require fortitude….and the ability to dance. No, I don’t mean really “dance,” I mean mentally and emotionally dance with him, as he comes into his own. Now, if he had CF and I were trying to get him to exercise as a method of airway clearance and self-esteem enhancement, I would:
- Not exactly phrase it that way.
- Make sure it included other peers (unless this causes additional discomfort, embarrassment, etc…).
- Introduce weight training as soon as he/she is capable of following direction and mature enough to be safe.
- Strictly enforce the bike/walk/scooter/skate to school, the store, a friend’s house, etc… rule.
- Hope that he/she liked to play soccer, basketball, baseball, or whatever team sport was available, so that a “coach” ordered the training, and not me.
- Continue to use enticement, aka bribery, to encourage daily exercise.
Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?
The Wording and the Timing of the Wording
First, the word “exercise” has unfortunately taken on a negative connotation among many of our youth these days. I don’t quite get it, frankly. When I was a kid, the trick was in getting me and my friends to come in at night. Now it is the exact opposite. I suppose it has something to do with the myriad forms of indoor entertainment these days. The problem has become that in trying to entice some form of movement away from electronic screens, we (and by we, I mean I) use the words “You need to get some exercise!” Instant negative reinforcement. “Exercise” is equated with the taking away of something good…screentime.
If you are a psychology buff, you know that this negative reinforcement is not going to promote the behavior (exercise) that you want. A more useful way to reinforce that behavior is to associate something positive with it. Like Pavlov and the dog! Remember, bell…food. So yes, get them away from the screen. By all means. But don’t repeat my mistake, and use getting exercise as the reason why. Bad idea.
More on positive reinforcement later.
Make it Social
Though not a universal characteristic of teenagers, most would rather hang out with friends than do pretty much anything else. If I ask my son to please take the dog for a walk, I get a, “Why….? I don’t want to….I had gym class today….I’m tired…etc…” If I instead say, “Will you take the dog over to your friend’s house and see if he’ll walk his dog with you?”, he’s off like a flash. It’s just (teenage) human nature. So why fight it? This is one of those Aikido moments…use the opponents force to get them to do what you want.
When I was a teenager, it was only by starting to hang out with active friends that I discovered my inner athlete. My parents didn’t really encourage it….it just happened. I still wonder what would have happened had I stayed in my shell.
It is an old wives’ tale that teenagers shouldn’t lift weights until they are fully grown for fear of damage to the epiphyseal plates. The truth is that as soon as a kid is mature enough to follow instructions and be safe in a gym with a trainer, it is perfectly fine to start weight training.
And the teenage years are the best for starting this habit early on. Why? For one thing, body image issues become overwhelming at this age, as we all can remember. Now imagine going through that again, but this time with CF. As a teen with CF, you deal with growth delay, puberty delay, an “unpredictable” body when it comes to lung function and GI function. Your friends see you take a handful of pills and wonder what is wrong with you. You spend inordinate amounts of time in bathrooms, your fingernails look weird…you get the picture.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something that had a visible, positive effect on your body that CF didn’t really affect?
The answer is unquestionably, yes! It had a profound effect on me, and I have spoken with many other adults who say the same thing. This is an issue where a child can actually have an “internal locus of control.” They can get stronger! They can put on muscle! They can start winning arm wrestiing matches! And CF can’t touch this.
Make Use of Multitasking
We are all pretty good at multitasking, so this one should be a no-brainer. We all have to go places…even our children. School, friends’ houses, the store, downtown, ball games, church….whatever. We travel. It is easy (I know) to get locked into a pattern of driving to all of these places. Certainly, when the weather is bad, we need to do this. But how many times could we just say, “I’m not driving you today. I’ll walk or ride bikes with you…but we are going to get there the low tech way today….just for fun.”
Just as it is with small kids, it is not necessary to get all of ones aerobic exercise for the day done in one session. It works just as well to break it into two or three smaller chunks. So that 15 minute bike ride (each way) to school, if done intensely, could be just what the doctor (or coach) ordered for the daily goal.
Defer to the Coach
This trick works if you son or daughter is on a sport team, and practices with the team. Then your job is easy…the coach makes your kid work, and you are off the hook. If this describes your situation, count your lucky stars.
Not all kids are “team” types, of course. So then what do you do? Well, here is my pitch for wellness coaching. If your child is mature and appreciates the need to establish an exercise habit, working with a wellness coach is a great idea. There are a couple of caveats, though. First, if your child is not into the idea and only you are…it doesn’t work. Behavior change is tricky business, and one thing is for sure, the changee has to want to do the hard work of changing. The coach doesn’t do it….the parent doesn’t do it. Second, I’ve learned through doing this that until a child is in their teens, it is best to schedule “family coaching” sessions. Taking on a new habit is a big job, and a child needs support from not just a coach, but also from their family members. Everyone in the familly needs to understand the plan, and be ready with support and encouragement.
Now, we could call this something else I suppose. But the truth is that is isn’t such a bad thing for a kid to understand the concept of quid pro quo. Just as I said this works for younger aged children (remember pedometer steps for video time, stickers for exercise), when kids become teens, the concept still works; the stakes just get to be a bit higher. Now we may be talking going to the movies, getting the car keys, going out with friends…you name it.
When you start feeling guilty about this, remember that the ultimate goal is for your chilld to learn for themselves during this time that they actually feel better when they exercise, and will hopefully find some activities that they love to do, and will keep loving to do into adulthood. This is a critical time..and it calls for some …unorthodox methods.
If you have great ideas that have worked for you in encouraging your teenager with CF to exercise, please share them here.