Getting Your Child to Break Bad Habits

By — National Association of Social Workers
Updated on Dec 16, 2008


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.

Talk Frankly With Your Child

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.

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