Breaking Bad Habits: How to Help Kids Kick Bad Habits

Breaking bad habits isn't easy, especially if your child isn't ready to admit there's a problem. Here's advice on how you can help him kick a habit.

Nail biting, messiness and more – every kid has a bad habit to break. But does your child want to break his “bad habit?” Or, is it really you who thinks your child’s habit is a problem?

If it’s really only you who thinks it’s a problem, you need to let it go, even if you think, “but he just does not realize it is a problem yet.” That may be the case, but until he does, he will not be invested in the hard work of changing what has become a habitual unconscious behavior.

Ready for change

If he is not ready, he won’t change. First, explore if your child is ready by approaching him in gentle, mindful ways that avoid shaming. “Being mindful of how you address the habit is more important than breaking the habit, Farmington Hills therapist Susie Kamen says.

Start the conversation with your child by asking, “How do you feel about your habit of …?” If the child is content with it, there is no buy-in for change at that time.

A parent can offer information without moral judgement: “I’d like to point out some reasons why you might want to think about stopping…” If your child still is not ready, you have left the door open for him to choose to approach you when he is ready.

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The child’s own maturation process and other people’s responses to their habit may provide the opportunity to revisit this topic and then you can offer support.

Breaking bad habits

If your child does think it is a problem and wants to change his habit, then how do you help? Kamen says to focus on “breaking the neural pathways that are wired together that create the repetition which is the habit” and suggests changing what has become routine in order to support neural change.

For your child who is trying to stop chewing with her mouth open, encourage her to do things out of order such as beginning with dessert or sitting in a different seat at the table than she usually does.

With even subtle changes, you encourage mindfulness and presence rather than moving through a routine on “auto-pilot.” With more mindfulness, your child can slow down to examine his habits and make conscious change happen.

For your child who is trying to stop twirling her hair or biting her nails, switching the stimulus is another option that can offer the opportunity to replace something unhealthy with something healthy.

Habits are behaviors that produce a reward of some kind; shift the reward to something healthier such as flicking rubbery bracelets, spinning the sphere on a spinner ring or feeling the texture of a watchband.

In his work, Stanford psychology researcher BJ Fogg, Ph.D. studies habits and suggests focusing on change through “tiny habits” to create automaticity, which leads to long-term change.

Celebrating success is a critical part of the process. When your child walks in the front door and dumps everything – coat, boots and backpack – on the floor, Fogg suggests doing three things: Identify the trigger, link it to a tiny behavioral change and celebrate it. The trigger is walking through the door. The tiny change is placing just his boots on the tray followed by verbal celebration such as saying, “I’m awesome!” Weeks later, once that has become automatic, the next tiny step is also hanging up the coat.

If your child continues to struggle with a habit she identifies as problematic despite your support, connect with a professional to help her explore if it is indeed part of a larger issue. Kamen reminds us, “‘habit’ is information for us” and it may be a manifestation of something else that will subside once we address the larger issue.

Nearly all of us have habits that we are not fond of, so team up! Model for your child that you have room for improvement, too, and share what you are consciously and mindfully tackling. Brainstorm habits and strategies – and how you can offer each other support. And remember to celebrate your success together, too.