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Lisa Mckelvie; Getty Images

How to Talk to Your Kids about their Habits: Good Ones or Bad Ones

Jan 11, 2016

The start of a new year is always filled with chatter about habits: how to break bad ones, and how to start good ones.

But according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit and the upcoming Smarter Faster Better, research shows that habit controls far more of our lives than we know: over 40% of what we do every day is done by force of habit.

To Duhigg, that’s good news. If we can help our kids understand their habits, “that has a huge impact on helping them understand how to take control of their lives.”

Even elementary school age kids, Duhigg says, can understand the three basic parts of any habit. There’s a cue that triggers the habit, followed by the routine of the habit itself, which provides some kind of reward. So when parents see kids doing something automatically, it’s a chance to start a conversation. Parents can alert kids to cues by asking, “What do you think prompted you to do that?” And think about rewards with questions like “What did you get out of doing that?” Understanding rewards is especially important, Duhigg says, because when kids and parents recognize what a bad habit offers, they can start to think about other ways to get the same reward—in a healthier way.

Middle school kids can grasp a bit more of the science behind habits, and the pathways they form in our brains. One of the most important things to understand, Duhigg says, is that once habits form, “it’s hard to extinguish them.” So it’s more useful to think about changing habits than breaking them. The good news is that no matter how young you are, any habit can be changed. The trick is not to eliminate the habit, but to recognize it, and “insert a new behavior that responds to the old cues and delivers a different reward,” says Duhigg.

High school kids can start to recognize how deeply their lives are affected by what Duhigg describes as “habits of thought.” For instance, Duhigg points out that getting stressed out over a test or game can actually become a mental habit, where kids get wound up and worried even though they’re well-prepared—or worry instead of actually preparing. Again, the key for parents is to help kids focus on the reward: what kids think they’re getting from the unhealthy thoughts. In the case of pre-test stress, kids may actually feel getting stressed out proves to them that they’re prepared. And once they recognize that, they can let go of the stress, or focus it on doing things that will actually help them prepare.

For kids at any age, and even for parents, says Duhigg, giving ourselves permission to enjoy rewards is key to forming good habits – and meeting far-off goals. We don’t tend to pat ourselves on the back for incremental progress, like “going an extra half mile,” he says. But our brains are wired to form habits based on getting rewards. If we don’t reward ourselves for the little victories, we actually sabotage our brain’s ability to form good habits.

So if we want to form good habits and reach big goals, Duhigg says, we need to enjoy the small rewards along the way.

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