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Do Parents Influence Their Kids’ Health Behaviors?

Research shows that how you react to illness has a lot to do with how your parents reacted to illness when you were a child. As with most other activities, children repeat what they learn from their parents.

Parents who take their child to the doctor frequently, let their child stay home from school, or pamper them with special attention when they are sick tend to produce kids who, as adults, go to the doctor frequently, stay home from work, and take longer to recover from illness.

Father and daugher in physician's office
Avoid overreacting to common illnesses with rewards, special privileges, or excessive worry.

What the research shows

Stomachache is the most common recurring complaint in children, and although most studies have focused on how parents and kids deal with this complaint, researchers believe that findings apply to other types of common childhood illness.

Some parents consistently react to a child's complaints of illness with behaviors that encourage children to be sick, such as:

  • Rewarding a child who is ill with toys or gifts

  • Giving the child special privileges at home

  • Letting the child stay home from school

  • Not making the child do his or her chores

  • Taking the child to the doctor frequently

Parents who react to illness in these ways tend to be younger and less well educated, suffer from anxiety and depression, and are more likely to have an Asian or Hispanic background.

Children who are treated this way may grow up to be adults who:

  • Take longer to get over common illnesses

  • Have higher levels of pain symptoms

  • Are more likely to become disabled by illness

  • Go to the doctor more often and spend more money on health care

A note of caution, though: Sometimes children do need to see a doctor right away. If your child is limping or has sharp or shooting pains in the stomach or abdomen, a fever with repeated vomiting, a rash accompanied by a fever, a severe sore throat, blood in the urine or bloody diarrhea, a worsening cold accompanied by fever, ear pain with drainage or fever, or other worrisome symptoms, call your child's doctor to see if an office visit is needed.

Tips for parents

If you recognize any of these parenting behaviors in yourself, consider making the following changes to help your child have a healthier approach to illness:

  • Set a good example for your child by learning as much as you can about health. Work with your child's doctor to educate yourself about your child's health. The more you know about common childhood illnesses, the less frightening they become.

  • You can always call your child's doctor for symptoms like congestion, sore throat, cough, or stomachache, but accept that when these symptoms are from a common cause, they may not require urgent care.

  • Avoid overreacting to common illnesses with rewards, special privileges, or excessive worry.

  • Don't let your child get away with avoiding chores and school responsibilities because of a minor illness.

  • Continue to discipline your child when necessary.

  • Teach your child about illness and healing. Help your child understand that symptoms of illness are a normal part of getting better.

  • Maintain family routines during illness.

It's natural to worry and want to indulge kids when they are sick, but if you make too much of common illness symptoms, you could be setting up your child for problems in the future. "Illness behavior" is the part of being sick that is learned.

If children learn that being sick means being given special treatment, they may grow up with a tendency to overestimate their own illness, stay sick longer, and seek medical care more often than they need to. A healthy and educated approach to illness is the best illness behavior to have.