Ask parents what their main objective is in raising their children, many would answer, "to raise independent, responsible, productive adults." It sounds simple, but in a society filled with overindulgence, instant gratification, and self-fulfillment, bad habits often arise.
The questions are: What is the difference between a temporary habit that is likely to be outgrown, such as sleeping with the lights on versus a habit that could lead to long-term destructive patterns, such as overeating? How can parents guide their children toward healthy habits that will serve them well as adults?
Everyone has habits. Some are helpful and are a necessary part of our daily functions, while others are harmful and can significantly interfere with our lives. When harmful habits are repeated and automatic, they can cause conflict in relationships, social stress, and/or lead to addictive behaviors.
Deciding What to Change, and What to Live With
Many parents worry over the habits their children develop. If you find that you are one of those parents, it may be helpful to stop and think about your role in addressing this issue. Instead of just focusing on how to break the habit, evaluate the situation by asking yourself the following questions:
- Does the habit cause your child physical harm such as long-term thumb-sucking?
- Is the habit socially inappropriate, like throwing temper tantrums in public?
- Will the habit create problems for your child later in life, such as incomplete homework?
- Is the habit associated with long term addictions, like over-eating?
- Does the habit indicate compulsive behavior like refusing to walk on cracks on the sidewalk or street?
- Does the habit get in the way of other childhood activities like not putting their blanket down to play a game?
- Is the habit linked to anxiety or insecurity, such as nervous tics or spasms?
Sometimes answering these questions can help you gain a better perspective on how to address the habit. You may determine that there is little reason for concern, or you may decide that the habit conflicts with your child's well-being and requires your attention. A calm and patient approach is usually most effective. Responding to children's habits with punishments, threats, and emotion often compounds the problem.
You may also talk to your child's doctor. They may know which habits your child is more likely to outgrow and provide suggestions on how to manage them.
Stopping Bad Habits
Determine the reason for the habit
Many habits are a result of stress or nervousness. Simply helping your child find alternative ways to relax can help change the habitual behavior. Lynsey, who is 8 years old, would twist her hair continually when she was in stressful situations. When her parents witnessed her doing this they would discreetly pull her arms down to her side and rub her shoulders for a few minutes. They later taught her to fold her hands and take deep breaths whenever she felt the urge twist her hair.
Alter the situation
Identify when and where the habit usually occurs. Many habits occur only at certain times and in certain places. Trevor, an active 6 year old boy, would rock back and forth only when he sat on the floor to watch TV. His parents bought him a bean bag chair, calling it his TV chair and it eliminated the problem.
Discuss the habit with your child
Find a time when you and your child can have a calm and uninterrupted discussion. In a light-hearted manner, explain to your child why you would like to see the habitual behavior change. For example, "Mommy and Daddy want you to be ready for kindergarten next month, so we need you to start leaving your blanket at home" or "I am concerned that if you continue to bite your nails, your fingers will be sore and could get infected."
A discussion can help make your child aware of a habit that they do not even recognize. Kathy, a mom of 7 year old twins, was frustrated because the girls were frequently picking their nose. One day she sat them down, had them hold a mirror in front of them, told them to pick their nose, then ask them what they thought? After the laughter, the girls admitted that it was "gross" and "it didn't look good". Aside from an occasional reminder, the girls discontinued the habit of picking their nose.
Sometimes talking to your child about how you have overcome a habit is also helpful. Let your child know that you are interested in helping them change their behavior.
Sometimes children simply need motivation to change their habits. Praise them every time you see them not engaging in their habitual behavior. Make simple charts indicating their successes. When the chart is filled, offer them a reward. This not only encourages them to overcome their habit, but also promotes self-discipline and delayed gratification.
How to Establish Good Habits
Be a good role model
The best way to teach children to be self-disciplined is to show them by example. Parents who demonstrate positive habits such as eating healthy, exercising, treating others with respect, and keeping commitments are instilling these habits in their children by the way they live their lives.
It is difficult to expect children to give up bad habits when we are not willing to give them up ourselves. Working through a personal habit along with your child can also be effective. It is important that you are serious about the commitment to change, so your child can see the positive effects of willpower.
It is never too early to begin teaching good habits. Guiding a newborn toward a schedule of eating and sleeping is the beginning of establishing healthy habits. Children can grow into good habits just as they grow out of bad habits.
Teach them natural consequences
Good habits bring many healthy consequences. Children will experience this as they develop good habits. For example, children who are in the habit of brushing their teeth on a regular basis will benefit from having healthy teeth. In addition, children who are taught to save their money will have more money to buy things they really desire. You can tell children the benefits of good habits, but when they experience the consequences first hand, they will be more motivated to continue them on their own throughout their life.
Children will be faced with many temptations throughout their life, requiring wise judgment, self-discipline, and balance. Directing them toward healthy habits and helping them overcome bad habits will assist them in becoming the independent, responsible, productive, individuals that parents want them to be.
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Kids Health—Nemours Foundation
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Canadian Psychological Association
Bad habits. University of Michigan Health System website. Available at: https://www.mottchildren.org/posts/your-child/bad-habits. Updated March 2017. Accessed June 30, 2017.
What you can do to change your child's behavior. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/what-you-can-do-to-change-your-childs-behavior. Updated May 2016. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Your child's habits. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/five-habits.html. Updated October 2014. Accessed June 30, 2017.
Last reviewed June 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 6/30/2017