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An empathetic child might be said to have a big heart, but he or she is more likely to have a healthier one, too. A University of British Columbia study found that high school students who spent one hour a week helping younger students in local after-school programs had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol and lower BMIs after 10 weeks than those students who hadn’t started helping out yet.

“The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy and altruistic behavior were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health,” says study researcher Hannah Schreier.

Description: Train them to care

Train them to care

What you can do

“Empathy is a capacity to think beyond our own needs and feelings,” says Little. “Empathetic children are liked by their peers because they’re less likely to bully or hurt others. They’re also more likely to feel good about themselves.”

How can we best develop empathy in our children? “Start by talking to them about how other people might feel,” suggests Little. “For example, explain, ‘When Laura didn’t get a turn batting, she felt like no-one liked her.’ Also, notice how your child is feeling and comment on why they might be feeling this way. This helps them to better understand their own emotions and those of others.

“Empathetic kids have also been taught to apologize when they’ve done the wrong thing and shown how to praise others’ success,” she adds.

Help them cope with stress

Our first instinct might be to shield our kids from stressful situations, but not teaching resilience can be detrimental to their wellbeing. A recent study found children who avoided stressful situations, like making a speech, were even more anxious a year later compared to those who had faced their fears.

Being resilient could also help keep their weight in check. A study published in the journal Appetite found children who react poorly to stress have higher BMIs and tend to eat when not hungry compared to children who don’t get as frazzled.

Description: Our first instinct might be to shield our kids from stressful situations, but not teaching resilience can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

Our first instinct might be to shield our kids from stressful situations, but not teaching resilience can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

What you can do

“Instead of telling your children what to do, show them what they can do,” says Little. “Many children aren’t taught to problem-solve because we tend to fi x things for them. But if they can look at a problem and generate a few options about what they can try, then they’ll feel more in control.”

“Children have an amazing ability to magnify a little problem into an enormous one and react accordingly,” says Little. “Show your child how to break a problem down into manageable parts, then encourage them to have a go – it doesn’t have to be the perfect solution – and see what works for them,” she adds.

And don’t forget to be serious about sleep

Setting a bedtime routine, and sticking to it, teaches children the value of getting a good night’s sleep. Bad sleeping habits have been linked to a greater risk of high cholesterol and blood pressure in teens, along with greater increases in their BMIs. Children need 10 hours and teens no less than eight hours’ sleep a night, with computers and phones turned off at least an hour before lights out to help their bodies wind down properly.

Description: Setting a bedtime routine, and sticking to it, teaches children the value of getting a good night’s sleep.

Setting a bedtime routine, and sticking to it, teaches children the value of getting a good night’s sleep.

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