Healthy Families Series Part 2: Replacing bad habits with good ones

Essentially, an unhealthy lifestyle is down to a set of poor habits. We become accustomed to repeated daily patterns of behaviour and lose sight of the quality of the lifestyle we are living. Whether this is the habit of putting sugar in our coffee or always eating a chocolate bar after lunch or driving rather than walking, many of our daily habits can take a toll on our health in the long term.

Similarly, families can easily develop poor habits, whether these are having daily sugary treats, allowing screens at mealtimes or not having a consistent bedtime routine, which can negatively impact on children’s health. Though it takes time and patience, the good news is that habits can be changed. It is possible to start new habits that over time will improve your children’s and your own health and well-being.

Start something new
Trying to stop a bad habit can take a lot of effort. The thing you try to “fight” or push away, can easily become the focus of your mind. The more you try to stop thinking of chocolate, the more you can obsess about it. From a psychological perspective, it is always easier to start a new habit rather than stop an old one.

The key is to start a new healthy habit that is a replacement for the old one. This might mean you have a piece of fruit for dessert rather than just avoiding chocolate, or you organise family games nights rather than just banning technology.

Start small
Nothing can interrupt the good intention of introducing new lifestyle changes than trying to do too much too soon, which quickly leads to frustration and giving up.

Making small changes that can build over time is the way to go. For example, maybe walking the whole way to school is too far, but how about parking nearby and walking the last 10 minutes? Or maybe having home-cooked meals every day is too big a goal, but why not start with once a week which is more manageable.

Reward yourself and your children
Habits are hard to change when the old habit appears to be much more rewarding than the new one. Which child would like to go out for a family walk/cycle, when they normally sit on the settee watching TV? Or who would like to try a new vegetable when they are used to eating pizza?

While new healthy habits are rewarding and enjoyable in their own right, they may need an additional “booster” reward to get them started. For example, you might set up a special game that allows your children to get a surprise each time they taste a new vegetable.

Integrate the new habit into daily life
We are more likely to maintain a habit if we can integrate it into our daily lives. Get into the habit of walking to school with your children (or if you have to drive, park a bit farther away so the journey always includes a walk). Or have a habit of turning off screens earlier in the evening to ensure you have more time to read and chat with your children before bedtime.

Create a healthy the environment
As discussed in our first article, it is very hard to start a new habit when you are surrounded by old temptations. You may want to give up biscuits but it will be hard to get through the evening when you know some of your favourite biscuits are in a nearby cupboard. New habits are easier to start when you create a new healthy environment that support them.

For example, it is easier to say “no” to your kids once in the supermarket, rather than saying “no” several nights in a row when the treats are in the cupboard. There are lots of simple changes you can make to the home environment to support new habits such as:

  • Put the TV in another room, or turn it towards the wall so it is not immediately accessible
  • Enable “parental control” settings on TVs, laptops and tablets which restrict the amount of time (and content) your child has access to on these devices
  • Leave out educational children’s books and healthy activities in the living room (eg, musical instruments, skipping ropes etc)
  • Have a bowl of fruit on the table for healthy snacks, or have a container in the fridge with some chopped up fruit or vegetables (maybe carrots) so when you or your child opens the fridge the first thing they will see is this.

Start family habits
In my clinical experience, the most successful changes in families almost always involve parents and children working together. If you focus on trying to only control or change your children’s behaviour then you are in for a lot of conflict.

However, if you focus on a family goal that you work on together then it is easier to be successful. Sit down with your children and get them involved in the healthy changes that you want to make.

For example, you might say, “I think we are all eating too many treats in the home (or we spend too much time using our tablets and phones), and I am hoping we can make changes to be a happier, healthier and fitter family – what do you think?” Get your children involved in the new healthy routines, whether this is helping with the cooking, doing the shopping and even preparing meals as they get older.

Dealing with difficult situations
Creating new healthy family habits is hard work and you will invariably run into difficult moments when the pressure to resort to the old habit feels enormous. The key is to anticipate these difficult moments and to have a plan as to how to deal with them.

For example, when out shopping and your children pester you to buy treats, think through how you can respond in a way which allows you to remain calm and not give in. You might simply pull back and ignore your child’s protests, or you might warn them of a consequence – “if you keep pestering me, you will lose your treats at home”.

John Sharry is the co-founder of the Parents Plus Charity, and Adjunct Professor in the Dept of Psychology, UCD.
Originally published in The Irish Times Health Plus, 13th January 2019

To read other articles in this 6-part series on building a healthy family click here.

For information on John’s upcoming talks and courses for parents, click here.