How to deal with your family’s bad habits

Filed under: Family, Kids (5-12), More, Teens
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extended family outside
by Leo Babauta

Have you created healthy habits for you, but haven’t gotten your kids or spouse on board? You’re not alone — lots of people get frustrated when their loved ones don’t want to create healthy habits.

I’ve had a bunch of people write to me about this, including one person who wrote about his sons, who are 10 and 12:

“They have bad habits with unhealthy food, computer time, and fighting. And I have a very hard time trying to make a change for them. I do not live with their mother, who is a very good mother, but she so have some bad habits with food. So I kind of feel out of control, but at the same time I am the responsible father.”

It can be very frustrating when your kids’ habits seem out of your control, whether they live with you or not. Today, I’d like to share some ideas for dealing with this and other situations we might face as parents, spouses, siblings and children of people whose health habits we can’t control.

Start with the right mindset

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus writes about the idea of focusing on what we control, and letting go of what we can’t control:

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” ~Epictetus

That’s probably not anything new to any of you, but it’s a good reminder that when it comes to our loved ones … we have no control over what health habits they form. Even if they’re our kids.

We tend to want everyone to do things the right way, which is our way. If we eat a healthy diet, we want our loved ones to do that, too. But that’s not under our control, and our happiness will be severely hampered if we let ourselves focus on things out of our control.

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Instead, focus on your own good habits. And being compassionate with those you love. These are things that are (somewhat) under your control.

Your example

Think back on when you were a teenager, and your parents wanted you to eat healthy foods. Did you think, “Oh, I’m so glad they’re making me eat this salad!” … or did you just want to eat the pizza and cake, and have them leave you alone?

I can attest that I was in the second camp. I have never wanted anyone telling me what to eat, or when to exercise. My guess is that your family and friends don’t want that from you either. It’s annoying, right?

Instead, you can be a living example, an inspiration. That has worked in my life — when I see others striving to be healthy, doing amazing fitness feats, going on healthy adventures … this inspires me to try that too, sometimes. Not always, but sometimes.

That’s what you can be for the important people in your life. Be that inspiration, but know that they might not follow you. At least, not right away. At the least, you’re expanding their idea of what’s normal, and giving them some things to think about.

What you might find, but you might not, is that eventually they might want to try some changes. This is what I’ve seen with my family — Eva is sometimes inspired by me, but also by other friends and people she reads about online, to make healthy changes. And she’s done well! But our kids are less motivated, though sometimes they’ll be interested in an exercise challenge or something. Overall, they’re healthier than most kids, because that’s the environment I’ve created for them, but they’re not always on board with my crazy habits.

The environment you create

Not only can you be their inspiration, you can help create an environment that encourages good habits. But just realize: this environment isn’t entirely (or even mostly) under your control. Lots of their environment might also be encouraging unhealthy habits, and there’s nothing you can do about that, so focus on what you can control.

Some things you can control:

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  • Ask them if they want to join you in a challenge, like a pushup challenge or a steps-per-day challenge (if you have a fitness tracker like Fitbit).
  • Challenge them to run a 5K with you in the near future.
  • Suggest that you all go for a hike, or go camping.
  • Plan a bike ride and picnic that they will love.
  • Ask one of them to go for a walk with you, to give the two of you a chance to talk about something.
  • Offer to cook delicious (but also healthy) meals.
  • Send them interesting articles on healthy habits, with no pressure to read them.
  • Ask one of them to be your workout partner, or yoga partner.
  • Ask them if they’d like to join you for a few minutes of meditation in the evening.
  • Share good books that you’re reading that might encourage them.
  • Talk about what you’re doing, health-wise, and encourage discussion about this stuff.
  • Share your inspirations with them.
  • Share your dreams with them.
  • Educate them, in a non-irritating way, about health issues they might not know about.

Each of these should be done with as little pressure as possible, in an encouraging way, without overdoing it. And most of all, they should be offers, not demands — meaning that if they aren’t interested, you shouldn’t get irritated or upset. A genuine offer doesn’t come with the pressure of accepting it if the other person doesn’t want to accept the offer.

Just do what you can

In the end, there’s only so much you can do about the health habits of your family, even if they’re your kids. You can’t control someone else’s life, and you can’t control their desires. You can be helpful, but most helpful is leading the life you want to lead, and letting them come to their own conclusions.

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