Having a cigarette with your morning coffee. Reading the sports section of the newspaper first. Ordering out pizza on Friday nights or Chinese on Sundays. These may be a few of your favorite things. But do you remember how or when these routines began? Are you even aware that they exist? Don’t be alarmed by your answers. Doing these things repeatedly and often without thought is what qualifies them as habits.
Humans are creatures of habit. Our behavior patterns, developed over time, “program” us to follow predictable routines everyday. Your children, too, are developing their own habits and routines - some of which may be undesirable or downright harmful. As parents, it is important for us to take an interest in our children’s habits. By understanding the nature of habits and by employing some habit-breaking strategies, you can help your child break bad habits.
Just as good habits can help improve the quality of our children’s lives, bad habits can be embarrassing, annoying, or threatening to their physical and emotional well being. Because all habits are reinforced over time, the earlier parents begin taking notice, the better the chance of helping children avoid and curtail bad habits.
But what is a bad habit? Many parents would probably agree that wearing a seat belt, brushing teeth regularly, saying “thank you” and “please”, studying after school, and eating healthfully are good habits. Parents may also agree that thumb sucking, knuckle cracking, finger nail biting, and nose picking constitute bad habits. But before parents intervene, they should understand how habits develop in children.
At first children are quite conscious of the behaviors that they exhibit. As the behaviors continue in frequency, they become more involuntary and become habits.
Habits develop due to factors including imitation, positive reinforcement, and/or anxiety or tension relief. Ironically, parents accidentally reinforce these negative behaviors they wish to extinguish by making a big deal about them. For example, the “fuss” parent makes is often reinforcing to a child who is seeking attention.
The best tool for parents wanting their child to discontinue a habit is patience. Parents should evaluate the habit as objectively as possible over a couple of weeks, observing the child and keeping track of the number of times the behavior occurs. It is also important to note the circumstances under which the behavior takes place, including the time of day and surroundings. These observations may help identify important patterns.
If, after employing this observe-and-evaluate approach, the parent still wants the behavior to cease, the following techniques are often effective.
Don’t just insist that your child discontinue the behavior. If your child is unable to see how refraining from the behavior is beneficial to him or her, your efforts will be futile. Talk about the behavior with your child and him/her why you think it should be avoided. Also let him or her know what positive things can be done to get your attention and to relieve nervous energy.
Pick a time of the day in which the child normally would not exhibit his or her behavior and stay close by. During this period, reinforce successes and call attention to setbacks. When your child has become successful during these periods, set a new goal for a different time of day. This technique is effective in helping your child gain confidence that he or she can be successful.
Children learn by modeling, so be sure not to engage in a behavior (smoking, for example) that you don’t want your child to imitate. You can also show how sincere you are by offering to discontinue a negative habit of your own.
Encourage your child to announce to grandparents, family friends and teachers that he or she is planning to break a habit. With support, it is always easier to resist an urge.
Show your appreciation for your child’s effort and determination. If your child becomes discouraged, focus on past successes. Keep any doubts and frustrations to yourself. When desired behaviors occur, immediately reward your child with praise, recognition, approval, attention or additional privileges.
Nervous habits, such as nail biting, increase under stress. Practice slow breathing exercises with your child and teach him or her to use positive self-talk whenever feelings of nervousness or stress occur.
Habits are not developed or broken overnight. Change occurs in gradual steps. Begin by aiming to reduce the number of times a habit occurs each day and then slowly progress toward extinction of the habit. While these techniques can curtail many behaviors, they are often ineffective against more serious habits. If your child does not benefit from the behavioral intervention presented here, it is recommended that he or she be evaluated by a mental health professional.
Habits aren’t called habits because we engage in them when we feel like it. Rather, they are behaviors that have a tendency to control us. Because habits are developed over time, it is important that parents are mindful of the behaviors that their children exhibit. Ignoring them won’t make undesirable behaviors go away. But if you employ the techniques listed here, you’ll be better able to equip your child with good habits and help him or her from slipping into a routine of bad ones.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Association of Social Workers.