Here’s a scary statistic: an estimated one in 33 children under 12 suffers from significant depression in the UAE. It’s just one concern among a long list of health problems peculiar to kids in the emirates. One in five children suffers from asthma, childhood obesity is on the increase, and a whopping 80 per cent of the UAE population – children and adults alike – are affected by preventable tooth decay. Why is the UAE such an unhealthy place for kids?
Well, it’s not so much the place as the expat lifestyle. The same issues that affect expat adults – bad diet, lack of exercise, work stresses – are affecting their children too. But, as Time Out discovers, the best ways to improve your child’s wellbeing also bring the family closer together. Two birds, one stone, and healthier, happier families. We likey.
Battling bad diets
Caroline Kanaan, a nutritionist at the Advanced Nutrition Centre in Dubai Healthcare City, says bad eating habits are being passed on to kids by their parents. ‘It’s very much part of the culture here – ordering junk food all the time for delivery, lack of time to cook at home,’ she tells Time Out. ‘If both parents are working, it’s tough to always come back home and prepare healthy meals. If the parents are finding it difficult to take care of themselves, then it will be more difficult for them to take care of their kids as well.’
The sooner you introduce a healthy diet to your children, the better. ‘The more cooking you do at home, the more you’re in direct control of what your child is eating, and the healthier your child will be,’ says Kanaan. Cook up a nutritious treat and sit down to eat it as a family. Not only will your kids learn to follow your good example, but you’ll be spending more quality time together too.
Lack of exercise not only affects a child’s physical health, but also their mental health, according to Kanaan. ‘If a kid is overweight or obese they’re not really that active and they’re probably not playing as much with their peers, so that can bring down their mood,’ she says. ‘There’s no social interaction, and for a person to be well and not have mental health problems they need social interaction and to be doing something they’re enjoying.’ Kanaan adds that exercise releases endorphins, which makes you feel fitter and happier.
Traditionally you encourage kids to exercise with outdoor sports and activities, but as the summer months approach, should we really be sending our kids outside to play? Won’t they keel over from heat stroke, or at best burn to a crisp? Kanaan urges parents to take their children to beaches and parks in the evening when the heat of the day has worn off. Just having a regular walkabout makes all the difference, or if you have a garden why not use it to play sports together, like football? ‘Instead of sitting inside and playing video games you can go outside and do some kind of activity together,’ suggests Kanaan. ‘It’s really the parents’ responsibility to make sure their kids are active and they need to coax their children a little bit.’ You could even lobby the local school to introduce more physical education into the curriculum.
But what if your child just isn’t the sporty type? Kanaan says any sort of social activity is a good idea, such as painting or ceramics classes. ‘Just something that’s active instead of sitting in front of video games,’ she says.
Finding the family fun
The idea of hundreds of depressed kids in Dubai is a worry. Dr Kathrin Fohe, a pediatrician at The French Clinic in Dubai Healthcare City, points out that schools here tend to be stricter than elsewhere. ‘The schools have longer hours and they have more homework,’ says Dr Fohe. ‘They expect more from the children, making them more stressed than, say, the average European child.’
Emigrating usually means leaving behind the wider family network. Expat children only have their immediate family to hand, and even then not as much as they’d like. ‘They don’t pass so much time with their family because school is longer and their parents work much more. The family isn’t together at meal times and that all has an influence on the children,’ explains Dr Fohe.
That dreaded phrase – the credit crunch – also plays a part. Fohe says many parents try to hide financial problems from their children, but kids will sense that something is wrong. Her advice? ‘You should talk openly to them and not hide anything,’ she says. ‘Tell them the situation and ask them what they think so they can take part in making decisions.’ Family rituals are also crucial. ‘Do family activities together, bring them to bed, read a book to them. It’s important to have time where you really concentrate on your child.’