Helping Others Break Bad Habits

A psychologist offers advice on how to help your loved ones break their bad health habits

Anyone who's broken a New Year's resolution knows how hard it is to get rid of bad habits. We could all use support from loved ones in our efforts to change our unhealthy behaviors.

Giving and receiving support, though, is often hard. No one wants to be a nag — or the object of nagging.

When you wish that your mom would quit smoking, or that your best friend would stop drinking so much, how do you help them without annoying them, hurting their feelings or even fracturing your relationship?

We asked Megan Hood, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center who specializes in behavior changes, for advice. Here are her suggestions:

Open with an "I" statement

The key is "I" statements. Instead of starting a conversation with, for example, "You're doing something unhealthy," try simply stating how you feel: "I care about you, and I'm worried about you."

This approach is less likely to make your loved one feel accused and defensive. 

Work on your timing

How your loved ones respond will depend on how they are feeling about their behavior. Telling your mom not to smoke when she's in the midst of smoking, for example, will only increase her stress and make her feel defensive.

Try to bring up the problem when your loved one is relaxed and not engaging in the behavior that concerns you.

Ask questions

When you do broach the topic, try to be genuinely open and curious and empathic. This can be challenging because you likely feel very strongly that, for example, your friend needs to stop drinking. But just telling her that is not going to change it.

Instead, ask about the role drinking plays in her life. Try to understand where she's coming from and what factors are involved in her behavior. This understanding can help point the way forward.

If you find out alcohol is helping her cope with a death in the family, you can't just take away the alcohol. You've got to find other ways to help her cope before she can leave the alcohol behind.

For example, if she's feeling lonely, you could eat dinner with her a couple of times a week. Don't assume that's what she wants, though. Ask what kind of support would be helpful.

Try to bring up the problem when your loved one is relaxed and not engaging in the behavior that concerns you.


Of course, many people, even if they're open to accepting help, might not know exactly what kind of support would be most useful to them. In that case, brainstorm.

Try asking questions: "Would it be helpful if we went walking together? Or if we signed up for the gym together?" Or, "Do you need a loan to start paying for the gym or for your smoking cessation medications?"

Think about resources your loved one might be able to access: dietitians to help with meal planning, clinical psychologists or therapists to help with behavioral change, exercise classes or other programs to help with weight loss.

Keep it up

Once your loved one has started making changes, continue helping and encouraging them. This is an important time because that's when people tend to drop off from providing support.

To help prevent a relapse, set regular times to check in. If your friend is trying to stay away from alcohol, for example, you could decide to send each other texts every weekend to offer encouragement.

You could also plan activities that don't involve alcohol — such as eating a meal but skipping the wine, beer or cocktails. By avoiding drinks yourself, you can avoid tempting your friend to join you.

It's also important to help people through difficult periods, especially when they fall back into their old habits. Try to normalize the relapse. You can say something like, "Okay, we're going to hit reset." Keeping up your encouragement in those hard times can prevent a brief relapse from becoming a total relapse.

Recognize your limitations

People's attitudes toward change range from total unwillingness to active effort, and can fluctuate from day to day. Sometimes your loved one will have no interest in making changes, and the conversation will just end there.

In those cases, it's important to recognize that you are not in control of anyone else's behavior. Don't blame yourself for your loved one's actions.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with worry for a loved one who seems unwilling to change, make sure you take time to care for yourself. Try relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation, or talk with a psychologist or therapist.

Help others help you

If you're on receiving end of concerned advice, don't hesitate to help your loved ones help you.

Try saying something like, "I know you really care about me and you're worried about my weight, but you lecturing me every time I eat a meal is actually stressing me out a lot more. What would be more helpful is if you would go walking with me every day."

Be explicit about the type of support that could be helpful. Remember that people are usually coming from a good place and they’re trying to help.

If you believe your loved one presents an immediate danger to self or others, call 911.

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