How Long Does it Take to Break a Habit

Help for You and Your Child as You Kick Bad Habits

You have probably heard the phrase that it takes 21 days to form a habit. But is 21 days really the magical amount of time to shed old habits and establish new ones? And does this adage work for kids the same as it works for adults? Habits differ just as people differ, so the truth is that it’s all relative.

Just How Long Does it Take?

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How Many Days Does it Take to Break a Habit

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Breaking a habit depends on a number of factors and is not an exact science. If you are trying to change a deeply entrenched behavior, the time commitment to do so may be far greater than a more frivolous action. For example, if you decide that you’re not going to watch as much television, you may have better success in gradually decreasing your screen time. But, if you decide that you’re going to watch TV less often, and, instead, go to the gym every night, giving up the habit may take longer. You also have to take into consideration the payoff you’re getting from a certain bad habit. If you bite your nails when you’re nervous, you may find it difficult to stop because it’s a self-soothing behavior. So, how long will it take to stop? No definitive answer exists.

How to Break a Habit

Think of people who have unsuccessfully started a diet, including yourself, perhaps. If you decide that you’re going to eliminate all those delicious foods that you’ve been eating for years and exchange them for water and salads, you’re likely going to fail. But if you take small steps, adding in a healthy choice here, taking out a dessert there, you’re more likely to get somewhere.

The same analogy can be applied to breaking a habit. If it’s a small, trivial behavior, going “cold turkey” may be the way to go. But if it’s a long-standing habit with a big payoff, baby steps may be the smarter route. Think about quitting smoking. If you can’t do it in one swoop, reduce the number of cigarettes a little each week until you extinguish the habit. Another tip is to replace the bad habit with a more desirable one. The nail-biter may start to chew gum. The smoker might want to keep mints in her mouth to satisfy the oral urge.

Helping Kids Break a Habit

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To help your child break a habit, begin by having a calm discussion about the behavior you’re seeing and why it’s important to change it. Keep in mind that the habit may be something your child instinctively does when she’s nervous, such as twirling her hair or sucking her thumb. Involve your child in the solution to see if she has any ideas about how she can break the habit. Tell her that you will support her by giving her a gentle reminder when you see her engaging in the behavior. It’s also important to praise her when you see her working to control the habit. If your child is struggling, consider using an incentive to provide motivation. For example, you can reward her with mom and daughter manicures once she stops sucking her thumb.

Many habits are not dangerous and will simply take some time and persistence for you or your child to shed. Your child’s habits may disappear with little effort as she gets older. If you have any concerns about a habit you or your child has that is threatening your health or safety, it’s best to consult a doctor for advice about how to proceed.