Changing That Which (We Think) We Cannot Change; Forming New Habits

September 11, 2013 at 5:43 am (General)


This morning, my daughter wanted to help me make scrambled eggs for breakfast. This is something I make often in the mornings, as it is quick and healthful and something my kids like to eat. And though I gladly welcomed my 8-year-old’s help in the kitchen, I found it hard to turn myself off autopilot when it came to making eggs. More than once, Elia said to me, “Um, mom…I wanted to do that,” when I turned on the stove, put the butter in the pan, or selected the eggs to use. I kept exclaiming, “Oh, I’m sorry! It’s just habit.”

In life, and in parenting, we have habits. Some can be healthy or helpful, like making breakfast or brushing your teeth or locking the door behind when you come inside. Others can be unhelpful, annoying, or even detrimental to our well-being, like leaving your clothes on the floor or that daily afternoon sugar fix or yelling at drivers on the road. It’s these unhealthy habits that can hinder our efforts at parenting, as they may get in the way of our relationship with our kids, the skills we’re trying to teach them, or both.

A habit of always picking up towels on the floor may enable a child who is capable of doing such things for himself.
A habit of saying “no” may rob a child of an opportunity to try and to learn something new.
A habit of yelling at a child when she’s made a mistake may discourage her from coming to you for help with future problems.


I recently read the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and found it very relevent to our work as parents. Because habits can be so powerful in our lives and relationships, it’s worth it to take a closer look at some of the habits we have with our kids and discover why we have them and how to change them (if so desired). I know I have habits I’d like to change, but to do that, it helps to understand why they exist. I’d like to share with you a few key excerpts from the book and what I’ve come to understand:

This [habit] process within our brain is a three step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use…Cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, and emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people.

For example, bickering, hitting, teasing or some other kind of behavior that pushes our buttons. Our child’s behavior is the cue that triggers a habit loop.

Then there is the routine which can be physical, mental or emotional…Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some habits, such as those related to emotions are measured in milliseconds).

Routines are varied; we all have routines we’d like to change when it comes to responding to our kids’ behavior. We may snap, yell, spank, grab, speak unkindly, use sarcasm, etc…

Finally, there is a reward which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time this loop–cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic.

When we have these kinds of habitual responses with our kids, typically the reward is that the unpleasant behavior stops. But the reward may also be something more emotional, like a sense of power or validation of your parenting.

Habits, as much as memory and reason, are at the root of how we behave. We might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains they influence how we act–often without realization.

There is a reason many parents use harsh or punitive measures to respond to kids’ unpleasant behavior: they work. In the moment. And as we experience more and more of those moments, we’ve gone through the cue, routine, reward loop enough times that now a harsh response is a habit.

The golden rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tool for creating change…You can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.

This is why it’s important to recognize the cues and rewards surrounding the habit you want to change. Understand the reward you’re getting from your habitual behavior, then create a different routine that will yield the same reward.

For example, when my kids were toddlers, I worked on changing my habit of yelling at them. I thought that by yelling, I was getting their attention, conveying the seriousness of the situation, and scaring them into stopping whatever unpleasant behavior was occurring. It turns out the reward I was actually getting from this habit wasn’t what I thought it was. I thought the reward was the end of the unpleasant behavior. But that was unlikely, as the behavior would frequently start up again almost as soon as I had finished yelling.

Turns out, my reward in this habit loop was an emotional release. I was venting in an attempt to help myself feel better. I even remember thinking, “I know I shouldn’t yell, but I want to and I need to!” It wasn’t to change my kids’ behavior, but because I needed to get my anger out of my system.

What I ended up doing to break my yelling habit was to take more timeouts for myself.  I replaced the routine of yelling with a routine of a mama-timeout. When I felt myself wanting to yell, I told my kids, “I feel like I’m going to yell. I’m going to go to my room until I feel better.” After I had taken the time to calm down, I was able to talk to my kids empathically and problem solve rationally. Same cues (unpleasant behavior); same reward (dissipated anger); new routine in the middle, one that was healthier for our relationship.

I love this diagram by Gary Keller, author of The ONE Thing; the surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results:

photo copy

It shows how we must put a ton of effort into forming new habits in the beginning of the journey, and how it decreases with time (with a new habit taking hold after an average of about 66 days of active practice).

Most importantly, changing habits takes belief.

It was belief that made a difference…For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.

In parenting, supporting communities are essential. Find your tribe of like-minded parents who have been through what you’re going through. Find those who have developed habits that strengthen their family relationships. Find them so they can support you in doing the same. Find them so you will believe change is possible.

We know that change can happen. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit puffing. You can stop biting your nails or stop snacking at work, yelling at your kids, staying up all night, or worrying over small concerns. And as scientists have discovered, it’s not just individual lives that can shift when habits are tended to. It’s also companies organizations, and communities.

And families, too.


  1. Jilanne Hoffmann said,

    OH, this speaks to me on so many levels. Thank you!

  2. Camille Dyck said,

    Your post came to me on the perfect day. I am a stay at home mom to a 4 year old and 11 month old-both girls. I left a public health nursing position to stay at home which was a dream job. After having my first I never wanted to return. My dream job was now being a mom. Fast forward 4 years and I just don’t know if I made the right choice. We went to a ballet class and my older daughter was too shy to participate and I worry that I have sheltered her too much and have now crippled her making her unable t enjoy life’s activities. I didn’t yell afterward, and we’ll try again but it definitely triggered frustration on so many levels. We came home and after playing with my older girl while my little one was napping, I didn’t draw something she wanted me too. I told she was capable of drawing it. After some back and forth she hit me-in the chest and face. My trigger had been primed before and was now exploding. I yelled things ‘mommy is going back to work because I don’t deserve to be hit’ etc etc. Then she started crying and was worried I was going leave her. What a mess. I just don’t know what I am doing anymore. Everyone around me has some form of employment and I’m wondering if I made the right choice. I am wondering if I am doing more damage to her by being home with her. I’m sorry for such a long reply, I guess I just needed to get that all out somewhere! Thank you again for your post.


    • Kelly said,

      Camille, I’m sorry for the delay in this response, but I have been thinking about your comment and wanted to get back to you! I cannot think of one mom I know who doesn’t wonder if she’s made the right choice. No matter what anyone’s situation is, there is always that “what if,” or, “should I?” that shows up and lingers.

      The decision to work or to stay at home is so personal…the answer is never black and white, right or wrong. Your kids are young, and these early years are SO tough! Everyone has moments in which they snap or days or weeks that are just generally un-fun. Certain phases can be very trying for everyone!

      From the situation you described, you sounds like a very loving, engaged mom! It sounds like you had a “flipped lid” moment, which is so normal, especially in these early years with kids. (This article might help with that):

      Can you connect with any like-minded moms where you live? A support group was very helpful to me when my kids were little…it gave us all a chance to commiserate, and I realized that I was not alone in the struggles I faced. It helped so much to hear words of encouragement and support from other moms who were or had been in my shoes.

      Hang in there! And trust yourself–you sound very attuned to your kids need, as well as your own, and you’ll make the best decision for everyone!

  3. Stacie said,

    To Camille, my heart goes out to you! I am a full-time mom who also works another full-time job. Please know I think the same thing, just from the other end. I get stressed and sometimes fuss at my three year old. And in the midst of it all I think “If only I didn’t have this full time job, I’d be less stressed with my daughter and wouldn’t yell at her.” I wonder if I am doing the right thing by keeping the job. At the end of the day, though, it’s about fulfilling our calling (and each of us have different ones). If I think about the decisions I have made in life and feel in my gut it was for me and the person I ultimately want to become, I feel better about it all. Then I can let go a little and start focusing on changing some habits!! Thanks Kelly for the great post : )

  4. Sunday Surf: Sept 8-14 | Old New Legacy said,

    […] Changing That Which (We Think) We Cannot Change; Forming New Habits | Parenting From Scratch We have lots of bad habits to change and new ones to form!  66 days to form a new habit?! […]

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