Dr Richard C. Woolfson
Sometimes, you might feel that your child has managed to build up an entire repertoire of annoying habits over the years, such as sneezing without covering her nose and mouth, touching other people’s possessions without their permission, talking loudly (or even shouting) in public, or forgetting to bring items to school. She is oblivious to the fact that there are others around her, such that it almost seems she is in a world of her own. It’s not that she deliberately sets out to annoy you, but her behaviour does have such an effect.
SAYING IT GENTLY
The challenge facing you is to help her lose these bad habits without damaging her self-esteem. No child likes to be told all the time that she is doing this or that wrong, or that people are irritated by her behaviour. She relies on you for advice and guidance on all matters, including her behaviour, and part of your job as a parent involves steering her towards a path you approve.
You are perfectly entitled to let her know about her bad habits, but what counts is how you do this. Think how you would feel if your partner said to you: “I think the way you eat your food is terrible.” You would most likely be stunned and unhappy. On the other hand, suppose your partner said: “You are such an elegant person, which is why I’m surprised that the way you eat isn’t as graceful as it could be. Perhaps you just need to eat a little more slowly.” You wouldn’t feel so bad, even though the comment is still a negative observation about your eating habits.
Its sting is tempered by two aspects. Firstly, the negative comment is set in the context of praise, and secondly, the comment contains a suggestion of the possible solution. This is how you can tackle a bad habit constructively. Choose your words carefully to avoid unnecessary distress to your vulnerable child. Rather than commenting “I’m fed up having to constantly remind you to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze”, you could say: “I know you can sneeze politely because I’ve seen you do that sometimes. Perhaps you just need to remind yourself to do it every time.”
It’s amazing how much more responsive your child is to constructive comments than negative comments about her habits. Embedding your comment in some form of praise and offering an alternative course of action to improve the situation increases your child’s willingness to listen to you.
Related: 6 ways to break bad habits
ONE HABIT AT A TIME
Even with the most positive approach to stopping your child’s annoying habits, have realistic expectations of change. Don’t aim to eliminate her undesirable mannerisms all at once. She’ll feel totally overwhelmed and undervalued if you present her with a list of things she does that irritate you.
Instead, pick one annoying habit to start with – perhaps the one that gets on your nerves the most or the one that might be the easiest to change. Talk about that habit with your child, explaining why you are troubled by it and offering alternative ways for her to react in that situation. Then, shower her with praise when she eventually does as you have asked.
Remember that your child wants to please you. She wants you to think she’s great and seeks your approval, so use that to harness her motivation for change. You’ll feel great too knowing that you’ve helped her get rid of those annoying habits, without creating barriers between the two of you.
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