I recently read a statistic that stated that only about a quarter of New Year’s resolutions are kept, and it made me wonder what was behind that number, and why so few change from a resolution into a habit. I started thinking about what we call “thinking errors,” and how they can be obstacles to change. Whenever you are trying to change a behavior, a common trap to fall into is the “all or nothing” mindset. This is the thinking that goes “Well, I already failed one test — there goes the rest of the semester,” or “My child was doing really well learning to speak respectfully but tonight he lost it. I’m a failure as a parent.” As our thoughts turn to resolutions this time of year, it’s important to remember that the key to lasting behavior change is taking those small daily steps to work toward a long-term goal, rather than expecting a drastic change overnight.
So what are the ways that you can combat this type of thinking, and move forward in a positive direction when you encounter a setback? Here are some tips to help:
1. Use short term incentives to stay motivated. We encourage the use of daily motivators to keep kids on track with their behavior change. Many times, particularly when getting started on a new behavior, the end goal can seem so far away that it is difficult to stay motivated. It’s going to be more helpful to reward progress, not perfection. As James Lehman reminds us, you’re going to be the most effective parent if you start where your child is and coach him forward. For example, if your ultimate goal is to have your son do his homework every day without asking him to complete it, reward him for each day he does his homework without reminders instead of waiting to recognize him at the end of the semester.
2. Have specific, measurable benchmarks. What does success toward your goal look like? I advise parents that the more precise they can be in defining achievement, the better. After all, the statement, “My daughter will clean her room every week to earn privileges” is a little fuzzy, whereas the statement, “My daughter will have her bed made, her clothes put either in the hamper or the closet, all trash removed and toys put away by 11AM Saturday in order to play with friends on Saturday afternoon” is much more specific. Think about your own changes that way. If it’s to be a calmer parent, instead of saying, “I’ll be calm from now on,” or “I’ll do a better job,” try saying, “The next time I feel like I’m going to lose it with my kids, I’m going to take 10 minutes and go sit in my bedroom.”
3. Try positive self-talk. This is a big one! A big part of the “all or nothing” thinking is defining yourself as “not good enough” or even “a failure” if you don’t achieve your goal that day, or that week. Remember, you can always try again with a fresh start. You are not a bad parent because your daughter didn’t clean her room, or your son chose not to do his homework. Think of something positive to say back to that inner voice who is trying to convince you otherwise, such as, “Tomorrow is a new day,” “These are my child’s choices, not mine,” or “I am doing the best I can.”
4. Plan for failure. Chances are, you are not going to be perfect at all times in achieving your goal. How do I know this? As we all know, it’s almost unheard of to completely turn around an ingrained behavior immediately without some missteps. I read a study recently that stated that people who do the best at making and maintaining behavior changes (such as weight loss or quitting smoking) actually plan for what they will do if things don’t go perfectly. So make a plan for what you will do if your daughter tries to get you to clean her room and it just seems easier to do it for her, or if your son refuses to bring his books home to do his homework and you feel like you’re going to lose it. What are you going to do if things don’t go as planned? What is your Plan B (or C, or D, for that matter)?
Making behavior changes takes time. It’s normal for your child to resist these changes, or for you to feel like you aren’t making progress. I saw a great sign while driving the other day that stated “Two steps forward, one step back isn’t failure — it’s a cha-cha!” I think this is an important message to keep in mind as we continue in this dance called parenting.