Family, Kids & Relationships

Science-based ways to break bad habits — for kids and grownups

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

Does your kiddo have any bad habits like nail biting, thumb sucking, nose picking, hair twirling, constant social media scrolling, or leaving dirty dishes around the house?

Do you recognize any problematic habits in yourself that you’d like to curb, like yelling at your kids when you’re trying to get them out the door, drinking too much caffeine at work, or mindlessly checking your phone every time the show you’re watching goes to a commercial break?

What makes a habit (whether bad, good, or neutral) so powerful is that it has become unconscious behavior — you have repeated it so many times that you can do it on autopilot, and often don’t even pay attention to the fact that you’re doing it.

Research shows that almost 40 percent of our behaviors are made up of habits. But research also confirms that, while they are difficult to change, stubborn habits can be changed! Here are some evidence-based strategies to use to help yourself and your family break unwanted habits.

Don’t shame — start with a positive goal

A “bad habit” doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It simply means you have developed a repeated behavior that doesn’t serve your goals in a given situation. Using too much negative attention or shaming words with kids won’t help them break a habit, anyway.

To get into the right mindset, think of a positive goal and write it down. If kids are mature enough, you can help them think of a positive goal related to the negative habit, such as being able to brush their hair painlessly (rather than twisting it into knots) or spending more time on an activity they love (rather than mindlessly scrolling on social media).

Then write down any habits (positive or negative) you already have that are associated with this goal. Remember that habits don’t automatically change just because your goals do. You’re going to have to be intentional about the process.

Find your cues and disrupt them

All habits have cues — signals that tell your brain to start the behavior. Cues for your unwanted habit could include:

  • Time of day (bedtime, breakfast, while watching TV, etc.)
  • Location (in the car, at your desk, at school pickup, etc.)
  • People (while home alone, while with siblings, while waiting for friends to respond to texts, etc.)

Once you identify the cues, you can physically disrupt the cues. For example, to curb phone habits, you can turn off notifications for apps you overuse, or leave your phone out of reach at key times like while driving, at meal time or bedtime.

These cue disruptions can help even if kids are too young to be motivated by the goal. Kids tend to live in the right now, so you may not have much success with explaining the long-term consequences (i.e. if you keep sucking your thumb for too many years, you’re going to need braces in the future).

Adults and kids can benefit from physical, practical reminders and alternatives in the moment. For example, using a special fidget toy while watching TV or riding in the car to provide an alternative to a nail-biting, thumb-sucking, or hair-pulling habit.

Make bad habits less appealing and harder to perform

Here are some ways to create more “friction” so that your unwanted habits are not so easy or tempting to slide into:

  • Switch your phone to grayscale to make it look less appealing (here’s how)
  • Delete addictive apps like games and social media
  • Install an app that limits your screen time
  • Put bandaids, gloves, or a bad-tasting/smelling substance on your fingers to curb a nose-picking, thumb-sucking, or nail-biting habit
  • Store your soda, wine glasses, video game controllers, or other tempting items in a hard-to-reach location

Then replace those old pathways with easy ways and reminders to work toward your goal. Here are some examples:

  • Set up healthier snacks front and center in your kitchen each week
  • Spruce up your work/homework desk, or put a dollar towards that new comfy chair you’ve wanted for every day that you don’t play video games
  • Display the nail polish colors you want to use for a manicure as soon as your nails grow long enough
  • Get a separate alarm clock/timer so that you don’t need to use your phone for positive reminders, if your phone is one of your bad habits

Use life’s natural transitions, or change your environment

Studies show that people have more success in breaking bad habits when they try to change their routine at times when they’re already making another life change. For example, moving to a new house, or starting a new school year, sport, or job.

Of course, big life changes are not always going to be an option. But you can also change your environment in other ways to mimic this “fresh start.”

For example, moving soda to a harder-to-reach location in the house, and displaying healthier beverages (and fun mugs/water bottles) front and center. Or reorganizing your phone layout to remove/hide apps that don’t help your productivity — and then decorating your phone case as a reminder to yourself of your new goal.

Don’t try to restrict your thoughts

Have you ever noticed that the more you try not to think about something, the more you can’t stop thinking about it? Research showed that people who were told to stop thinking about smoking had more trouble with quitting smoking than those who were not told to restrict their thoughts about smoking.

So don’t try to suppress thoughts about your hard-to-break habits — instead, let yourself notice the thoughts or cravings you are having. You’ll feel proud knowing you have an active plan to curb the habit, and that your behaviors are getting healthier, no matter what your thoughts say.

When kids whine or complain during the process of trying to break a habit, validate their feelings but encourage them to stick with the new plan: “I know you really want to play video games. Your thumbs are probably twitching! We just have to keep reminding your body and your brain: that’s going to be a fun activity for tomorrow, if you get your homework done today!”

Do the math, and plan alternative activities

Another useful approach for adults or older kids is to examine how the time spent doing an undesirable behavior adds up.

You can literally add it up using a calculator: Take the average number of hours spent per day on X activity. Then divide that by 16 hours. That’s the percentage of your waking life spent on X activity (for people who get about 8 hours of sleep, anyway). For example, if you spend 3 hours a day watching TV, that’s about 19 percent of your waking life. Sounds like a lot, right?

There are even apps, like Opal, that can help you make projected calculations to motivate you to limit your screen use. This strategy worked for teenager Kate Romalewski, who wrote in a powerful first-person essay, “I was on track to spend 17 years of my life on a screen. … What if I had lost out on my entire life because I was too busy experiencing other people’s digital ones?”

You could do similar calculations with money, if your bad habit involves spending too much. Add up how much you spent in a month on your coffee, takeout, or online shopping habit.

After you’ve determined how much time/money you can get back from curbing your habit, plan other activities that help you work toward a healthy or more desirable goal — and actually put them on the calendar or schedule!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.