For many years, I never paid any attention to the holiday of Groundhog Day. Then the movie came out, and I was captivated. Now I try to mark the holiday every year by watching the movie again. One year, I even coerced my adorable and long-suffering nephew into watching it with me on an overseas trip, sitting in front of my laptop on the coffee table of our rented apartment in Jerusalem.
As parents, though, it can sometimes feel as if we are continually living through the worst parts of the movie. We watch our children make the same self-destructive mistakes over and over again, never learning either from their experiences or our wise (of course) advice. Helping our children overcome bad habits can be one of the most frustrating parts of parenting. There is no one-and-done solution for either us or our children, but there are some principles that can at least lower our stress levels and perhaps help them learn.
Bad Habit or Survival Skill?
The first question we have to ask ourselves is whether what we see as a bad habit actually is our child’s way of navigating the difficulties in their lives. Abused children, for example, learn to lie to stay out of trouble. Lying becomes their default response to adult questions, even when they are in safe situations. Runaways learn to leave, or hide from, difficult situations. Their coping skills are skills, and it is easier for our children to reach for them than to learn new skills.
We also have to watch whether we are inadvertently triggering these survival skills. Children caught between competing adults will hide information to avoid unpleasantness. This trait is particularly strong if we are asking about their biological family. Their instinct is to protect that relationship and we have to honor that impulse. If we don’t want them to mislead us, we have to learn to not pry into their relationships.
Knowing why our children do what they do helps us understand them, but it doesn’t end our responsibility. Skills that helped them survive in bad situations usually are counterproductive in school and work situations. We have to find ways to help them develop healthy skills for their new lives.
Bad Habits Are Not Character Traits
It’s all too easy for our kids to think that bad habits mean that they are bad people. We can unknowingly contribute to this problem. After all, most adults think that someone who habitually tells lies is a liar. We have to be very careful to avoid that sort of logic when talking to our children. Yes, habits eventually become character, which is one reason that we need to help our children in this area. Children, however, are still developing their character traits and it’s too early to let them start attaching labels to themselves.
It’s important to help our kids learn the right vocabulary to describe their feelings. Of course, a lot depends on our child’s age and verbal ability, but even young kids can learn the difference between behaviors that work one place and not another. Older children can understand more, but their emotions also are more complex.
One of my foster daughters once came home from an evening with friends telling me about an argument, and almost physical fight, with a random woman on the street. When I asked why she didn’t just walk away when it started, she said, with an expression of surprise, “On the streets, you never back down from a fight. It just makes it worse when they jump you later.” I realized that my daughter, who had been essentially homeless for a couple of years before moving in with me, had resorted to her default street skills. We spent a long time that evening talking about survival skills and how people need to learn new skills as they move into new situations. If I had just lectured her on controlling her temper or avoiding violence or what kind of person she wanted to be, I would have missed an important teaching opportunity.
Bad Habits Thrive on Negative Reinforcement
One of the reasons that bad habits can be so hard to break is that they usually serve a very positive purpose in our children’s lives. We can’t change that dynamic just by penalizing our kids when they fall into those habits. In fact, punishment usually will just make the problem worse.
One of my strongest memories as a young child is admitting to my mother that I had done something wrong and getting punished for it anyway. I don’t remember what I had done, and I don’t even remember that the punishment was severe. But I distinctly remember puzzling over why telling the truth was such a good thing. After all, being honest hadn’t helped me, so what was the point?
Our kids tend to follow the same logic. Changing habits is difficult and painful. If we want them to go through that pain, we have to give them a positive reason to do it. The reward doesn’t have to be tangible; just saying “thank you” often can be enough. But we have to show them the benefits of change before they will be willing to take that risk.
Changing habits is difficult and time-consuming in the best of circumstances. With children who have suffered trauma, bad habits that have served as survival skills will be even more stubborn. Like so many things in parenting, helping them develop new skills will require a lot of patience and understanding. It may take them a long time to start feeling safe enough to turn away from the coping skills that have worked so well for them for so long. At least if we understand why these bad habits make sense, we may be able to be more patient and more understanding as we all work through the difficult process of changing skills.