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How to Help Kids Break Bad Habits

Laura Bickle October 17, 2016
Baby pacifier

Will my child ever give up their pacifier? Will I ever again have an uninterrupted conversation? Will I ever be able to just say good night and leave the room? The answer to all these questions is yes. But it sure can seem like eternity when you’re trying to help your child change their behaviour. To speed up the process, we went to the experts for advice on how to help kids kick common habits.

The Habit: Pacifier passion
The Expert: Alyson Schafer, author of Ain’t Misbehavin’
The Fix: Start the conversation by reading some children’s books about giving up soothers. To begin, limit pacifier use to specific times. Then, choose a ‘Give Up Soother Day’ on the calendar. Time it during a vacation or weekend, particularly if your child depends on soothers to sleep. And don’t fall into the trap of lying down with your child and becoming the substitute soother!

The Habit: Nose picking
The Expert: Alyson Schafer, author of Ain’t Misbehavin’
The Fix: First, teach them to blow their nose, keep the nose lubricated with an appropriate moisturizer and always have tissues on hand. Show them how to remove crusted mucus with a tissue-wrapped finger—in a private place. If public nose picking continues, ask if they need to go to the bathroom or simply pass a tissue to them. Or, suggests Schafer, say ‘I’m not watching that. I’m leaving.’

The Habit: Hitting
The Expert: Jennifer Kolari, Toronto child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How To Raise A Great Kid
The Fix: ‘You hit, you sit. Period,’ says Kolari. Tell kids that if they choose to hit, they will be removed from the situation (30 seconds for two-year-olds; 3-5 minutes for five-year-olds: 10-15 minutes for older kids). Explain they have alternatives to hitting: using their words, walking away or asking for help. But if they hit, they’re not welcome. If they hit again, remove them again.

The Habit: Whining
The Expert: Jennifer Kolari, Toronto child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How To Raise A Great Kid
The Fix: ‘Don’t give them what they’re whining for—you’ll just get more whining,” says Kolari. Stay neutral and consistent—try not to lose your cool no matter how grating the sound is. Try saying’ ‘I don’t like that voice, when you use your own voice I can help.’ You might also give it a name: ‘When the Whiny monster goes away, I’ll listen.’

The Habit: Needing company to fall sleep
The Expert: Tracy Braunstein, Certified Paediatric Sleep Consultant in Montreal
The Fix: After reading a story and saying goodnight, sit in a chair by the crib or bed until your child falls asleep. Each night, move the chair further away until you’re out of the room. The secret is sticking to the plan. ‘A child who is dependent on parental presence needs to be handled with love and warmth, of course, but also with consistency and patience,’ says Braunstein. She says it usually takes four to nine nights until you stop seeing protest.

The Habit: Won’t wash hands
The Expert: Alyson Schafer, author of Ain’t Misbehavin’
The Fix: Don’t fight about it—you’ll only set up a power struggle. Instead, try to make it fun: buy funky soap pumps and teach them to sing a song while they’re scrubbing. Connect hand washing with desired activities. Yes, you can have a snack after your hands are washed.

The Habit: Pull-on diaper dependency
The Expert: Alyson Schafer, author of Ain’t Misbehavin’
The Fix: ‘It’s really important not to force, pressure or shame,’ says Schafer. Focus on making it a fun experience: go shopping together to pick out new underwear and read books about giving up diapers. Kids want to do what their peers are doing, so set up playdates with friends who are able to use the toilet independently. ‘Be patient and know that eventually they will want to be like everyone else—wearing underwear and using the toilet.’

The Habit: Interrupting
The Expert: Jennifer Kolari, Toronto child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How To Raise A Great Kid
The Fix: Lay out the expectations: I need a few minutes to talk to Grandma. Unless it’s an emergency, I do not want to be interrupted. You can also give them something to keep them busy, like a basket of toys they don’t see very often—it teaches them to entertain themselves. ‘Do not give in: it only reinforces the behaviour’, says Kolari. However, do empathize: I know it’s hard to wait. What can you do differently next time?

Remember to give yourself a reality check
It’s unlikely your first attempt to kick a habit will be 100 percent successful—kids just aren’t wired that way. The frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls judgment, problem solving and impulse control takes 25 years to fully develop, says Jennifer Kolari, author of Connected Parenting: How To Raise A Great Kid. ‘Parents are substitute frontal lobes; our job is to correct and inhibit and provide that brain function. So don’t take it personally or be hard on yourself. It takes time to change a behaviour.’

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