The second subject that my mothers’ group asked that we discuss is that of “habits”. When I use the word “habit”, I mean a pattern of behavior that is hard to break even when you try very hard. We usually refer to the patterns we want to break as “bad habits”, but of course there are good habits, too. I like to use the principles of nonlinear systems theory to understand the establishment and maintenance of habits. That is not as complicated as it might sound.
Nonlinear systems theory says that “organization”, or patterns, emerge from the interactions of the component parts of a system (von Bertalanffy, 1968). In a family system, this would mean that when family members (parents, children) interact with one another, they create particular ways of behaving (patterns of behavior) that include characteristics of the individuals involved, their home environment, and the time (of day, month, and year). For example, what Sander calls the infant’s first organization, the diurnal sleep cycle, is established through the repetition of small caregiving acts – nursing, burping, bathing, and changing – that the caregiver and infant experience together, as they are repeated in the same order each day over and over again (Sander, 2008). When the baby grows older, the family establishes bedtime routines that parents and children tend to follow every night. Of course these rituals change with the age of the child and the time of the year, so that during school vacations the patterns usually loosen. Whereas families can typically describe to you their bedtime routines, they are usually not aware of the powerful significance of routines in their lives until something happens – houseguests, illness, a family trip – that disrupts the routine. It is then that the family recognizes the role of these patterns in the coherence of family life.
There are two other dominant characteristics of habits. The first has to do with motivation, or intention. Why would anyone intend to establish a bad habit or be motivated to maintain it, you might ask. Well, there are actually many reasons, and not surprisingly, most of them are out of awareness. Some of them are “non-conscious” in that they were never represented in language or other symbols in the brain and most of the time never will be. They usually have to do with efforts to escape perceived threat and are generated by the central nervous system in parts of the brain below the cortex (thinking part of the brain), such as what we refer to as “fight or flight”. You may wonder how fight or flight could qualify as a habit since it doesn’t happen all the time. I would respond that in highly stressed families, individuals feel threatened much of the time, and they develop a “habit” of reacting with aggression or running away (the flight may be a form of withdrawing or tuning out). People make up reasons to explain to themselves why they are behaving that way. For example, “I have to get him to school!” or “I am too tired to deal with this right now.” Even more insidious, they make up stories to explain why the other person (these “habits” originate in relationships) is causing them to behave that way, for example, “He is a little monster!” (Fonagy et al, 2005).
“Bad habits” are also hard to change for another “non-conscious” reason. According to non-linear systems theory, changing a pattern in a system to a pattern at a higher level of organization (assuming that just trying to grab control of your child or tuning out are not complex patterns) requires energy. When families are highly stressed, energy is one thing they rarely have enough of. This is another reason why a trusting, supportive relationship is so important to people who are trying to change their habits. That person – personal or professional – is a source of emotional energy.
Another motivation is also out of awareness but can become conscious. It lives in the unconscious mind and is “repressed”. An example of this is when a parent responds to a child’s provocation by trying to control him, establishing a struggle pattern. The parent’s response is irrational, because were you to ask him or her whether this type of response to the child’s provocation ever produces a positive result, he or she would undoubtedly say no, but it happens again and again. This is because underneath the conscious reasoning the parent is using (“I can’t let him get away with it or he will never learn. I have to show him who is boss.”) is an unconscious reason, such as, “I can’t bear to feel out of control. I have to gain control of my own overwhelming negative emotion and the way I can do that is to control him.” Or “He is reminding me of my mother/father and the way she/he pushed me to the wall and made me feel helpless. I am not going to let that happen again.”
The way parents usually get into these dilemmas in the first place is by “over”-reacting to their infant’s or young child’s stressful behaviors, such as screaming, or losing control of their impulses and hitting, kicking, or biting. I put “over” in quotes not because the child’s behavior is easy to tolerate, but because the parent temporarily loses his/her perspective, his/her empathy for the child, and for that moment believes that the child wants to hurt him/her. That is not to say that a child never intends to hurt his/her parent, but when the child is very young, an aggressive move does not have the same meaning as it does when the child is older, because the very young child cannot imagine the mind and the feelings of another person in the same way. He/she does not yet have what some call a “theory of mind” (Baron-Cohen, 1995). Even perfectly good parents can “over”- react when they are stressed. Dan Siegel describes the parental choice of “taking the high road” (not over reacting) or “taking the low road” (over-reacting) (Siegel & Hartzell, 2003). When parents are highly stressed, they can “channel” their own “bad” self or their “memory” of feeling attacked by a parent of their own.
The child is course a major contributor to these habits. Both child and parent try to make sense of the hurt and anger between them, and unfortunately, often both come up with the same meaning – the child is bad. Even if the child overtly blames the parent, almost always the child believes that he is a bad kid. This attribution of bad intentions to the child begins early. In the beginning, the infant’s aggression may take the parent by surprise. The baby may bite the nipple or pull the mother’s earring or put his fist into the parent’s nose or eye. The parent may instinctively make an angry face, or a scared face (Beebe & Lachmann, 2012). If this interaction repeats itself – as it often does, for example, with dysregulated infants or depressed parents – over time the parent-child relationship can become strained. Sometimes, the child tries to manage his feelings of distress and helplessness by taking charge and initiating a provocation that begins the fight. Anna Freud called this “identification with the aggressor”, in that the child identifies with the person who originally frightened him (Freud, 1936). Sometimes, the child gets upset for some other reason but “takes it out on” the parent, and the two of them easily slip into the old familiar struggle.
The second dominant characteristic of habits is that they get that way through repetition and are maintained by repetition. If you stop doing them, they fade away. You might say that getting them to fade away is easier said than done, and you would be right. Instead, a way to change problem patterns, or “break the habit” is to substitute a better pattern for the bad habit and repeat that better pattern over and over. This is a technique used in behavior therapy. Another way is to gain insight into what meanings were involved in creating the pattern, such as recalling problematic patterns with one’s own parents. Insight, an important emphasis in psychoanalytic therapy, can also help break a habit. It is easiest to change relationship patterns in infancy, but they can also be changed in families of older children too. Stern points out that there are “many ports of entry” into the infant-caregiver system that allow patterns to be changed. Even talking to the mother about her past without even seeing the infant can sometimes change a problematic mother child relationship (Stern, 1995).
But in my experience, the best way to break a bad habit such as a problematic relationship pattern is best to create an integrated approach that 1) includes a trusting relationship (with a professional, a friend, or a partner); 2) involves attempting to gain insight into what one is bringing from one’s own current life and from one’s childhood; 3) manages one’s own physical and emotional regulation (put the oxygen mask in the plane on yourself before putting it on the child); and 4) then devises a new pattern one can practice over and over. With the help of my mothers’ group, I will address each of these components of such an “integrated” system in future blogs.
Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: and Essay on Autism and the Theory of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fonagy P, Gergely G, Jurist, E, Target M (2005). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self , London: Karnac Books.
Freud A: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936). London: Hogarth Press, 1993.
Sander, L. (2008). The event-structure of regulation in the neonate-caregiver system as a biological background for early organization of psychic structure, Eds G Amadei, E Bianchi, Living Systems, Evolving Consciousness, and the Emerging Person, The Analytic Press, pp. 153-165.
Siegel, D. and Hartzell, M. (2003), Parenting from the Inside Out, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Stern D. (1995). The Motherhood Constellation, Basic Books.
von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: foundations, development, and applications. New York: Braziller, c1968