Many of the lifestyle habits that children and adolescents develop—eating a diet high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables, being physically inactive or sedentary, and experimenting with tobacco and alcohol use—can have a major impact on their health later in life. Given that, psychologists with expertise in children’s health and behavior should be taking more of a lead role in helping young people develop good lifestyle habits early on and preventing these problems from occurring, says a researcher from Georgetown University Medical Center.
The scope of what child health psychologists can contribute to the health and well-being of children in our society is much broader than many have yet recognized, says Kenneth Tercyak, PhD, assistant professor of oncology and pediatrics and member of the Cancer Control Program at Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Among the leading causes of death in the United States are heart disease, cancer and diabetes, but actual causes of death—which are defined as lifestyle and behavioral factors such as smoking and physical inactivity—contribute to this nation’s leading killers Tercyak says.
“That means the choices that children and teenagers make early in life, and the activities that they engage in, can have serious implications for their physical health and well-being when they grow up,” he says. “Because these health-compromising behaviors are typically initiated when a person is young, there is a need to more effectively prevent their onset and reform public health approaches to prevention. That is where child health psychologists can help.”
“There is a pressing need to readdress prevention efforts targeted toward our nation’s young people and their families, and child health psychologists are well-poised to advance this mission,” says Tercyak, who authored an editorial on the subject published in the September 24 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
“Specialists in childhood behavior have a lot of good expertise that should now be employed to play a greater role in disease prevention,” he says.
Many fields in and outside of public health have designed lifestyle and behavioral prevention programs, Tercyak says, but too few have been aimed at youngsters or fully taken into perspective the psychology of children.
“Increasingly, the energy in public health is being focused on the lives of children because we know these lifestyle habits form early and may carry forward into adulthood. Child health psychologists and other advocates for children’s health need to be more involved at all levels of prevention research, applied work, and policy making in helping young people adopt good self-care,” he says.
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