Habits: Easy To Make, Harder To Break

Do you pick your teeth in front of dinner guests? Drink a couple sodas a day even though you know you shouldn’t? Always top off your dinner with something sweet? Bite your nails when you get nervous? Swear like a sailor when someone cuts you off in traffic?

Well, the good news is that you’re not alone. But that’s small comfort, really. Truth is you’ve got yourself some bad habits. And chances are you’ve tried to break them but find yourself slipping back to your old ways at the slightest provocation despite your best intentions. That’s because once established, habits become a part of us — almost literally. They are pretty easy to make but very hard to break.

And I’m not just talking about you — it’s the same for your kids. The habits they lay down while they are little tend to stick around for years, or even a lifetime. That’s why it’s so important to work with them now to create good ones rather than bad ones.

How they get developed is really pretty interesting. Here’s how it works: everything we think and do is controlled by impulses firing across the spaces between cells, called synapses. When we repeat a behavior often enough a pathway begins to be built in our brain. The more we repeat the behavior, the more that pathway gets used to being accessed and the easier it is for impulses to travel along it.

Pretty soon the behavior, good or bad, becomes something your brain is familiar with. The connections are made quickly and easily because the road is already there. So then the behavior (now called a habit) feels automatic and natural. And given the proper circumstances, you have a hard time resisting it.

Just think about going to the movies. Have you ever noticed how practically every person in there is munching on a bag of ridiculously overpriced popcorn? It’s kind of funny when you stop and think about it. Years ago some guy decided to make a quick buck by selling a cheap, easy-to-make snack to folks heading in to see a movie and next thing you know it has become a habit for millions world-wide.

The average person walks in to the theater and thinks “movie = popcorn.” So he buys it and munches away without giving it a second thought. It just feels like the right thing to do. The actions “going to a movie” and “buying popcorn” have become linked. Good thing that guy back-in the-day wasn’t selling pigs feet!

The thing is though, our brains don’t distinguish between good vs. bad habits. They will work quickly to make the pathways strong whether the behavior at issue is something that will inspire the masses or lead to an arrest. And even if you decide to try and break the bad habit, the path is already made and never goes away. It will weaken without use but can be reactivated pretty easily.

So, (and here comes the “pearl”) think long and hard about the patterns and habits you are helping or allowing your child to establish, whether they relate to hygiene (like brushing and flossing their teeth), nutrition (like eating healthy snacks and regular meals), sleep (like setting up night-time routines and regular bedtimes), daily exercise, t.v. or computer use, or general manners.

Keep in mind that it’s just as easy to create a good habit as it is to create a bad one and that once established, those habits take on a life of their own. So do your children a huge favor and get them on the right track right from the start!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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