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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). Continue reading