When I was a child, I bit my nails. It was a reflexive action whenever I felt stressed or anxious. I don’t really know how it started, but I do remember that it was really hard to break the habit. No amount of willpower or negative feedback from others worked. It was only when I found new ways to handle my emotions that I could leave my nails alone.
Psychologist Wendy Wood studies how people make positive changes in their lives. Her findings suggest that we can teach children (and ourselves) how to turn bad habits into good practices. However, we need to help them pay attention to why they behave in certain ways and their choices for replacement behaviors.
The first step is to affirm that change is a fact of life. Talk with children about how they have changed over time. Encourage them to identify new abilities they have developed, activities they enjoy that they didn’t used to know about (or previously disliked), and different ways that they have learned to manage their emotions. Changes can be small as well as large, so include even the little differences they see on this list.
Then share that bad habits are cued by our environment. We hear someone else yelling angry words, so we yell back. Or we notice everyone else drinking from disposable bottles and so we use them too. Sometimes, the behavior doesn’t match the trigger – like biting your nails when stressed – but it’s still likely that something going on around us is the catalyst for doing whatever it is we want to change.
Next, suggest children imagine a good practice that they want to substitute for their bad habit. Wood found that it is much easier to replace a behavior than eliminate it. So encourage kids to think about different ways they could respond to an environmental trigger. For example, when they hear someone yelling, they might take three deep breaths, repeat a personal affirmation to themselves, imagine a quiet walk in the woods, or jump up and down several times to release pent up anger and frustration.
We also need to reduce the amount of ‘friction’ children encounter in making a change. Wood explains that ‘friction’ is something that makes behavior easier or more difficult. So if children want to reduce their use of disposable water bottles, not having access to a reusable bottle would make changing to that good practice more difficult. And having a set of dishwasher-safe versions so a clean bottle is always handy further reduces change friction.
Finally, help children avoid trigger contexts whenever possible. If they throw a tantrum when you won’t buy them a new toy, take a different route through the store so you don’t pass the toy section. Or if hanging out with a lot of strangers triggers anxious behaviors, seek out smaller group activities in which to try out substitute practices. The goal isn’t total avoidance, but smaller, less frequent doses so children’s change efforts aren’t overwhelmed.