How to encourage children with neurodevelopmental disorders to live healthy?!

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Lisa Bos
About the Author

Lisa Bos works as a researcher for the TRACE project and the PROUD-study works at the Karakter Child and Youth Psychiatry and RadboudUMC (Nijmegen, the Netherlands), focusing on novel treatments for ADHD.


Neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASS) and different types of anxiety disorders are associated with a higher risk of poor dietary, physical activity and sleep habits. Shaping behavior in children with neurodevelopmental symptoms can be challenging [1]. How do parents experience teach healthy habits to these children? What tips and tricks are there to encourage your child to live healthily? We put together the results of a recent study conducted in Boston and our own results from a qualitative interview with parents of children that followed the TRACE-diet [2] to help you encourage your child to be healthy.

What is hard?

For parents of children with a neurodevelopmental disorder (ND) it can be challenging to convince their children to make healthy choices. Some parents explain that taking an unhealthy option from a neurotypical child might also lead to an anger meltdown, but this meltdown is not comparable with an ND meltdown, which can last the whole day. Furthermore, children with ND can be more impulsive, which makes it harder for them to think before they choose. Other children with ND are resistant to change, and/or lack intrinsic motivation to change. The parents that tried taking their child to a health professional, reported a lack of clinical expertise among lifestyle experts to level with children with a neurodevelopmental disorder.

What is helpful?

AgencyBoth studies found that allowing your kid agency in making choices is critical to creating a healthy habit. It is important to limit the choices, otherwise, your child will drown in options. Offer, for instance, a healthy snack and an unhealthy snack and let your child decide whether he/she wants the healthy snack now, or later.

Family engagement

Work as a team! This was a helpful strategy that was reported by most parents in the TRACE study. If you follow the diet with the whole family, the child does not feel left out or punished. Also, just not having snacks at home prevents your child from sneaking into the cabinet and taking one.

Positive reinforcement

It is important to define a goal together with your child. What are we working for? And for how long? You can help your child visualize this goal by making a calendar. Will your child only be rewarded at the end of the goal? Or are there also smaller sub-goals? For some children, a long-term goal such as “sleeping better” or “fewer belly pains” will be rewarding enough, but other children might need short-term goals.

The role of pets

In the Boston study, almost one-third of the parents reported that they used the role of pets to promote healthy habits. Animals can be used as a positive reinforcement for good choices, but they can also help to maintain healthy routines such as physical activity (walking the dog) and family engagement (walking the dog with the whole family).