New Year’s resolutions and kids: what to know

Four children blowing paper horns in celebration.
Andrew Richards, a psychologist with Boston Children’s Martha Eliot Center, discusses ways to approach talking with kids about New Year’s resolutions. (Image: Adobe Stock/Patrick Bibbins, Boston Children's Hospital.)

With a new year upon us, we’re once again bombarded with messages about getting healthier, skinnier, and more disciplined come January 1. We couldn’t help but wonder what this means for kids, so we turned to Andrew Richards, a psychologist with Boston Children’s Martha Eliot Center, for answers.

Are New Year’s resolutions a good idea for kids?

New Year’s resolutions can be a great way for kids to learn about setting goals and obtaining a sense of agency, but these lessons don’t have to be restricted to an all-or-nothing pledge at the start of the year. The most important thing we can do as adults is to take a child’s lead: If a resolution is their idea, then great, but don’t push anything. Don’t use resolutions as a way to force your child to lose weight or give up a “bad habit.” In fact, many cultures don’t even acknowledge New Year’s resolutions, so you may want to explain how New Year’s resolutions are a tradition that some people follow if they decide they want to do something differently. If your child expresses interest, that’s when you can ask if there’s anything they’d like to work on, such as eating less junk food or improving in a sport or hobby.

Any tips on how to take action on a New Year’s resolution?

Once your child is ready to act on their resolution, I encourage working together with realistic goals. Some things to remember here:

Be a good role model

What kids learn at a young age becomes habit, meaning parents and adults are models for behavior. That’s why kids need to see adults working toward realistic, achievable goals with self-compassion, especially around food and weight.
Be mindful of the language you use when talking about health-based resolutions. When you say you’re going “on a diet,” it implies that at some point you’re going to go off the diet; that approach doesn’t encourage healthy long-term relationships with food and exercise. We want to find ways to help kids make healthy choices that they can carry out for the rest of their lives without the focus being on losing weight. Instead, you might say something like, “What are things we could do or eat to be healthier?” or “are there some things we should try to eat less of?”

Take small, measurable steps

Language matters here, too. The word resolutions is intimidating — it implies all or nothing. Instead, focus on manageable goals. For example, instead of a child proclaiming, “I’m giving up pizza and soda,” then getting upset or derailed when they go to a party that serves pizza and soda, encourage more realistic language such as, “I’m going to cut back on pizza and soda.” Or if exercising more is the goal, maybe suggest a starting point of getting off the school bus one or two stops earlier.

Take a team approach

Being your child’s teammate is key in helping them reach their goals. So, have conversations about what they want to achieve, then discuss what role you can play in helping them succeed. This can mean saying things like, “let’s see what I can cook differently,” or “let’s go for a walk on Tuesday nights.”

How can parents help with maintaining change?

Parents need to be prepared for the inevitable setbacks that come with New Year’s resolutions.

Resolutions “fail” mostly because people launch themselves into them when they’re not mentally ready to take the actions needed for lasting change. Change isn’t a linear process — there will be easy days and bumpy days. Accepting the bumpy days when they happen frees you up to continuing trying. Relapsing back to an old habit isn’t failure; it’s a normal part of the process.

I tell families: You’re on the road. You may have hit a stop, or traffic, but keep going. You’re still on the road. Don’t give up.

Learn about the care and services available at Boston Children’s at Martha Eliot Center.

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