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The Health Benefits of a Happy Childhood

  • Category: Educational
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Farhan Jawed, MD, with contribution from Kelly Dexter
The Health Benefits of a Happy Childhood

By Farhan Jawed, MD, with a contribution from Kelly Dexter

When I was nine years old my parents took me on the most amazing trip to Europe. I remember it like it was yesterday. We went to England, Wales, Scotland, and Switzerland, touring historical sites, eating local delicacies, and exploring these far-off wonderful places that seemed so magical to me as a boy. But the best part was getting to spend all day with my parents with no work or school to separate us. Family vacations were special times for me growing up, so special that I now carry on the same tradition with my children.

Memories & Brain Development

Happy childhood memories are essential to a child’s developing brain. A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that people who have fond memories of childhood, specifically their relationships with their parents, tend to have better health, less depression, and fewer chronic illnesses as older adults. Previous research found the same was true for young adults.

“The most surprising finding was that we thought the effects would fade over time because participants were trying to recall things that happened sometimes over 50 years ago,” said William J. Chopik, Ph.D., from Michigan State University and lead author of the study. “One might expect childhood memories to matter less and less over time, but these memories still predicted better physical and mental health when people were in middle age and older adulthood.”

The Mind/Body Connection

Our memories play an important role in how we make sense of the world. How children absorb, understand, respond, and react to their environment are all critical factors in the adults they become. Whatever they learn, they imitate. Parents are huge role models for their children. Of course, there are also genetic aspects involved. If the parents have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, there’s a possibility the child may be predisposed to those issues as well. But, a stable home environment can go a long way towards offsetting those genetic disadvantages. In my opinion, depression and anxiety are similar to diabetes and high blood pressure. Both are affected by stressful environments and can be improved with medicines. In many ways, the body and mind are interconnected.

The Power of a Parent’s Presence

The experiences we have as a child set the stage for all the relationships we have later in life. The presence of the mother and father makes the most difference in the development of a child. Children want to spend time with their parents more than anything. I was reminded of that just recently. My 7-year-old daughter plays soccer. I try to make as many games as I can. But one day work was too busy so I ran over to watch for just a few minutes. I waved to her to make sure she saw me, then I snuck out. That night when I put her to bed I told her how great she played in the game. She smiled and said, “Daddy, I know you just came for a second and left.” I thought she was so involved in the game she wouldn’t notice, but she absolutely did. Nothing gets past kids.

Making Happy Memories

It’s encouraging to me to see so many families spending quality time together, from fishing and camping trips to vacations and ball games. These are the moments that mean everything to a child, making them feel safe, secure and loved. And when kids feel like that, they thrive, enabling them to become happy, healthy adults. The best part is that you don’t need a lot of money to make happy memories with your kids. Here are a few simple, low-cost ways to do just that:

  1. Get outside. Toss around the football, shoot some hoops, or play a friendly game of baseball in the backyard.
  2. Do a scavenger hunt. Mom and Dad make the list while the kids find the goodies.
  3. Break out the board games.
  4. Cook up some fun by making dinner – or dessert – a family affair. Then pop in a movie.
  5. Explore a local park, river, or attraction.

No one’s childhood is perfect. As parents, all we can do is try to be there for our children as best we can and create a loving environment for them to grow and develop into happy, capable adults. For those still struggling with painful childhood experiences, there is hope. The Behavioral Medicine staff at Norman Regional is a team of caring and compassionate professionals trained to help with mental health issues. For help and resources, call 405-307-5555.