Wisdom//

The Dos and Don’ts of Helping a Loved One Break a Bad Habit

Offer your support, even if you’re disappointed when they fall short.

Raywoo / Shutterstock
Raywoo / Shutterstock

Watching a loved one fall victim to a bad habit is, at best, a bit frustrating. And at worst? It can feel pretty disheartening and lead to a lot of worry and stress. No one wants to see someone they care about engage in behaviors that harm their health and well-being, but it can also be a challenge to figure out what you can do to help.

“Habits are challenging to change because they are a kind of learning that develops slowly — and changes slowly,” Wendy Wood, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, tells Thrive. “Once your willpower wanes, your old habit is at the ready to start up again.” 

Although you might feel put off by a loved one’s behavior — why can’t they just stop? — or simply concerned — this vaping habit is really going to take a toll on them — there are simple things you can do (and things not to do) that can help them make a breakthrough.

Get rid of problematic cues

While “out of sight, out of mind” might not be a great coping mechanism when dealing with stress, it can make all the difference when it comes to conquering a bad habit. Wood says our habits are triggered by context, cues, and the people around us, and most of the time, making a dent in negative behavior comes down to removing the cues that trigger it. So you want to get a loved one to stop checking their phone so obsessively? Help them choose a Microstep that can help them.  Tell them to turn off push notifications, or turn their phone off altogether, Wood suggests. And you, too, should follow suit. “You can help by making sure you are not part of the problematic cues. If they want to quit snacking after dinner, for example, then you might do so too, so as not to cue them that this is a time to eat,” Wood says. 

Help identify the underlying problem 

Bad habits are behaviors we know aren’t good for us, yet we’re so accustomed to them that they somehow stick around. What we realize when we look below the surface, though, is that we’ve probably fallen into these tendencies in an attempt to deal with something else. Lawrence Reed, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor at New York University, tells Thrive that simply stopping a bad habit isn’t an effective strategy for overcoming it, because the underlying cause still remains. “The best strategy is to figure out what motivates your loved one to engage in the habit,” Reed suggests. “Are there specific times of day that it happens? Does it happen after specific social interactions?” By identifying the why behind the behavior, you can help your loved one tackle the roots of it, rather than treating its side effects. 

Find alternatives 

Simply offering your support can do wonders for a loved one trying to quit smoking, stop biting their nails, or develop better technology habits, for instance, but sometimes words without action just aren’t enough. Wood recommends brainstorming alternative activities that could replace problematic behaviors. That way, you’re helping your loved one get their mind off the negative tendency they’d otherwise engage in, and can open the door to activities that can benefit their health and well-being. Talking a walk instead of stress-eating, or talking about anxious thoughts instead of biting nails can put your loved one on a more positive trajectory.

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