Think of the brain like a dirt road. I think we first heard this analogy at a Dr Perry Keynote address like 10 years ago, and it has stuck with us - because it just makes sense.
You know how you go off road and your tires just naturally go in the ruts? It’s the easiest way…
As your child, or you, or anyone really, makes the same choice each day, good or bad, it creates a rut in the dirt road or connections in the brain. The more they make that same choice, or go down that same pathway in the brain, the deeper and harder that rut in the road becomes, or the stronger the pathway in the brain becomes.
Think of yourself when you are trying to change a behavior or habit. Let’s say you drink caffeine every morning and have for 10 years. You wake up and it’s your first thought, you've been doing it so long. You go straight down to the kitchen and grab whatever it is and drink ½ without even really thinking first. Trying to break that habit will be hard! Not only do you have a physical connection to the caffeine, but you also probably have an emotional or behavioral connection to the feeling of the drink. The fizz, or the taste, the smell, or something else about it. You must, or you wouldn't do the same thing every day.
Now let’s say you want to kick the habit. You decide it’s not good for you to make a healthy change. The first morning you go right for the kitchen and drink it without thinking about it. You realize you need to implement something to help you remember so you move the drinks or the machine out of the kitchen. So you can’t grab it mindlessly.
Now is when the real battle starts. Because it’s not in the fridge the next morning, you start battling with your brain. Your brain tells you you need it, it’s fine, it’s not that bad, every sort of rationale it can come up with. You fight against it and try to occupy yourself with something else. Distract yourself until the physical need for the caffeine is so strong you give in.
This is EXACTLY how it is for your kids. Let’s say you have an unhealthy behavior pattern going on. We could choose anything really: Demanding screens, demanding sugary or processed foods, bothering siblings, hitting, kicking walls, whining and complaining, rough with animals, etc. Every one of these behaviors is a bad habit, OR an impulsive behavior that has happened over and over again and created such strong ruts in their brains, that the behaviors happens without them even thinking about it.
You say no. Trigger. Behavior happens. You say stop, behavior escalates. They aren't thinking about it and deciding in that moment in between two choices. It happens without them even thinking about it, just like with the caffeine first thing. You also might respond with a bad or negative choice like yelling at them, your own trigger response.
Let’s say this cycle is happening and you decide no more. As of tomorrow every time this one behavior happens, let’s say arguing, you decide you are going to implement a consequence.
You have your consequence all ready and you talk to your child about the change you would like to make and why you feel you need to make it. Maybe you picked arguing, and that every time they argue with you, you will have them do a quiet time with a puzzle for 20 minutes. Just to calm and then you will process with them what just happened. A puzzle is not a terrible consequence right? Especially if they really like puzzles. It’s a chance for the brain to calm and shift and then process. That’s the goal.
It doesn't matter. They will have the same hard time not yelling when something happens they don’t like. They won't be able to think in that moment – oh wait, mom talked to me about this, she doesn't want me to yell anymore, and then stop the behavior.
It will take a LONG time to reset that behavior pattern because it’s become a rut in the brain.
And changing behavior patterns for our kids is like giving up a drug. You know that - because you have tried and then quit trying because the reactions are so huge.
Think of the ways you can relate - so that in the moment when you are frustrated you can have empathy instead. You can be remembering how hard it is for you to kick bad habits. So when the arguing starts, and you institute a quiet time or what ever you decided, over and over again, you can be patient instead of frustrated.
That’s all it is. Bad habit or ruts. The same as a pattern in the brain can be negative - over time, with daily practice and diligence, it can become a positive pattern in the brain. Or a positive rut you WANT to go down.
Keep at it.
As with anything, you will want a lot of consistency to change the bad to good.
Question to think or journal on if you want - What are some way you could relate your own journey with bad habits or impulsive behaviors you do to your child journey? Maybe it's not as serious but it doesn't matter - what matters is that they know you understand how hard it is to change a behavior or habit. How can you relate and share that with your kids?