Shaping healthy habits in children with neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders: parent perceptions of barriers, facilitators and promising strategies

Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2019 Jun 26;16(1):52. doi: 10.1186/s12966-019-0813-6.


Objective: Prevalence of pediatric neurodevelopmental and mental health disorders (ND/MHD) is increasing in the United States and globally. ND/MHD are associated with higher risk of poor dietary, physical activity (PA), screen, and sleep habits in youth, contributing to elevated lifetime chronic disease risk. ND/MHD symptoms can present unique challenges to parenting, create competing parenting priorities, and may decrease parental capacity to instill healthy habits. Unfortunately, literature characterizing parenting of health habits in youth with ND/MHD is sparse. The objective of this study was to describe barriers to, facilitators of, and practical strategies for parenting healthy lifestyle habits in children and teens with ND/MHD.

Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with parents whose children with diagnosed ND/MHD were attending a Boston-area therapeutic day school serving K-10th grade. Interviews allowed parents to focus on parenting PA, diet, sleep, and/or screen habits as context for questions. Interviews were transcribed, double-coded using constant comparative methods, and summarized into themes using NVivo 11.

Results: We interviewed 24 parents; average age of their child with ND/MHD was 11.2 years (range: 8-15). Most had a son (75%) with multiple ND/MHD (88%); diagnoses included autism spectrum disorder (50%), attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (67%), anxiety (67%), and other mood disorders (58%). Major barriers to parenting all types of health habits included depleted parent resources, child dysregulation, lack of supportive programming available to children with ND/MHD, and medication side effects. Major facilitators included participation in specialized therapeutic options, adaptive community programs and schools, as well as parents' social capital. Effective parenting strategies included setting clear, often structural boundaries, using positive reinforcement, allowing agency by presenting healthy choices, and use of role modeling to promote healthy habits. Almost one third of parents extensively discussed the role of pets or therapy animals as key to establishing and maintaining healthy routines, particularly PA and screen-time management.

Conclusions: Parenting healthy habits in children with ND/MHD is difficult and is undermined by competing demands on parenting resources. To reduce chronic disease disparities and promote health in this population, future research must better adapt existing health promotion materials and programs to more practically support parents in multiple settings including home, schools and community organizations.

Keywords: Autism; Diet; Mental illness; Parenting; Physical activity; Screens; Sleep; Youth.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / psychology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology*