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Eight ways you can help someone break a bad habit

Do you know someone who is trying to break a bad habit? Maybe your husband wants to quit biting his nails, or your wife wants to break a five-cookies-after-dinner addiction. Or perhaps your best friend recognizes her habit of checking her phone constantly frustrates her family, and thinks it’s time to cut back. If someone close to you has decided to try and break a bad habit, there are things you can do to support them.

  1. Avoid judgment
    Remain objective and keep discussions about the habit, not the person. Discuss the knuckle cracking as a specific behavior and avoid generalizing it in a way that suggests the person is annoying.
  2. ID triggers
    Help identify whether there are particular situations that seem to trigger the unwanted action. Keep a log or journal that includes details such as time, location and emotion associated with the bad habit.
  3. Take baby steps
    Start by setting small, attainable goals. For example, when your husband finds himself wanting to bite his nails, he can make it a goal to resist doing it for the next five minutes. Once he is able to do that, gradually increase the time.
  4. Change the focus
    Instead of focusing on the negative—what they’re giving up—encourage them to think of the positive. Taking an after-dinner walk instead of eating cookies is not only a healthier habit, it’s more fun and something you can do together.
  5. Put up barriers
    Make the bad habit more difficult—zip the phone into a hard-to-reach pocket, or store the cookies on another floor of your house.
  6. Fill the void
    When your friend is tempted to check her phone for the twelfth time in two minutes, suggest that she replace that action with a positive behavior, such as taking four slow, cleansing breaths.
  7. Be patient
    Many habits are ingrained behaviors and are hard to break. If you see your loved one slip, don’t lecture or nag. Instead, be empathetic and work to understand how hard it can be to make a change in a behavior that very often occurs without a lot of thought.
  8. Reinforce the positive
    Make note of good efforts and celebrate the wins, no matter how small.

Most bad habits are just that—essentially harmless behaviors we’d rather we didn’t do. Further on the spectrum are compulsive behaviors that individuals are unable to stop, even when they want to. If you or someone you know is experiencing distress or impairment due to an uncontrollable behavior, see a mental health professional for evaluation and possible treatment.


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