The teen years are prime time for developing healthy habits. As teens learn to navigate the world and make independent choices, their brains form patterns of thought and behavior. Over time those patterns– including healthy and not-so-healthy ones– become habitual. Habits are often formed unintentionally, but with a little awareness, teens can learn how to leverage their neuroplasticity to develop habits that lead to lifelong health and well-being. Here are five strategies to help your teen get started:
- Link habits to big goals.
The goals that matter most to teens can inspire them to stick with healthy habits. Because of their stage of brain development, teens often live moment-to-moment instead of planning progress towards their goals. But when teens know that achievement depends on specific, consistent efforts, they’re more likely to develop goal-supporting habits like eating healthy to boost athletic performance or getting enough sleep when they have a big test. Talk to your teen often about what they dream about and what sparks their curiosity. Then help them connect everyday choices to their long-term goals and evaluate whether or not their current habits are likely to lead to success.
- Identify keystone habits.
Certain routines can lead to a cascade of other positive habits. For example, when Sara’s fourteen-year-old daughter Zoe joined the cross country team, she suddenly started asking for healthier snacks and going to bed earlier so she could be at her best for morning practice. Sara says, “I literally said, ‘Who are you and what have you done with Zoe?’ but I’m amazed at how motivated she is to take care of her body now.” According to author Charles Duhigg, keystone habits start \”chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.” When your teen has a goal they care about, help them identify one or two new habits to ensure success. Once they get started, they may find that the momentum leads to lots more positive change.
- Create the right context.
Teens, like adults, often wrestle with self-judgment and frustration when they’re trying to create a healthy habit or let go of an unhealthy one. They may genuinely want to make better choices but find that it’s just too hard to go for a run when their friends want to play video games or snack on carrot sticks instead of Takis. Remind teens that habits form because our brains like to make things easy and efficient. To instill a new habit we need to make it as simple as possible to do the desired behavior and as hard as possible to do the undesired behavior. That might mean keeping a pair of running shoes by the front door, clearing unhealthy snacks out of the pantry and fridge, or setting up a distraction-free study zone. Help your teen brainstorm how to make healthy habits so easy they don’t have to think about it.
- Take advantage of positive peer pressure.
Positive peer pressure is more about encouragement and support than it is about actual pressure. When teens know their friends support them and want them to be the best version of themselves, it helps them commit to healthier habits. Seventeen-year-old Nicole says, “When I’m trying to do better with a habit, I get one of my friends to do it with me. Like, right now my friend and I are trying to drink water instead of soda. We remind each other to always bring our water bottles and it’s easier to not drink soda if I know we’re doing it together.” Teens also benefit from positive peer pressure when they take part in team sports and group academic and extracurricular activities. Working towards shared goals with peers is extra-motivating and encourages teens to develop lasting positive habits.
- Choose the right kind of reward.
We’d all love our teens to make healthy choices based on intrinsic motivation– doing something because it is satisfying in and of itself– instead of extrinsic motivation, or doing something because a reward is expected. But researchers agree that incentives can help people get into the groove when forming a new habit. Help your teen pick something enjoyable they can reward themselves with each time they complete a desired task, like ten minutes of game time when they finish their homework or workout. To build self-efficacy, make sure the reward is something your teen can do for themselves. That way, they’re completely responsible for self-motivation and monitoring their own progress. The right reward gives teens something to look forward to until the sense of accomplishment kicks in to keep them going.