It’s hard to believe that we are at the beginning of a new year. We are once again at the time of year when we make resolutions to change the things in our lives that are unpleasant or unhealthy. For some those resolutions include things like losing weight or exercising more. For others, they include spending more time with family or repairing relationships. Unfortunately, a quick Google search will show you that few people stay committed to their resolutions beyond the first month and, by the end of the year, those resolutions are long forgotten.
So, what does that say about the human capacity for change? Is it impossible to change habits or is it more an issue of commitment and willpower? And if it is so difficult for adults to change their behavior, why do we expect children to change theirs so easily?
For children who have experienced chaotic or traumatic histories, their behaviors are often centered on surviving life rather than improving its quality. These children have usually developed maladaptive coping skills simple in order to function–hoarding food, stealing, lying–just to name a few. Habits like these are extremely difficult to change for the very simple reason that these children have equated them with survival; if they want to go on living then these are the things they must do.
Sadly, there are some adults that these children interact with who have difficulty understanding that changing these behaviors is a complicated process. Some adults act as though behaviors should change as soon as the environment changes; others attribute malice or disrespect to the behaviors and attempt to extinguish them through punishment. And because they are looking for changes on a larger scale, the adults working with these children sometimes fail to acknowledge the smaller achievements that are being made.
Progress is very often made in what we think of as little moments and insignificant choices; it is rarely made in giant, leaping bounds. When an angry child chooses to slam a door, it does not feel like progress—but when their typical response is to hit someone or something, slamming a door is progress. A teenager rolling their eyes might not feel like progress, but if they normally cuss and scream then rolling their eyes is progress.
However, because these choices and behaviors don’t take the forms that we are wanting or expecting them to take, these children are chastised for them. Their progress in making an alternative choice to something that has been ingrained in them is often summarily dismissed or ignored because their choice wasn’t “right enough”. And, unfortunately, this type of corrective communication can eventually send the message that they cannot make a choice that will be considered good enough which may lead to them deciding to not try at all.
So, what should we do? How do we go about bringing about effective change within ourselves and others? We must recognize, encourage, and celebrate the “small” things before we see changes in the “big” things. We need to acknowledge that baby steps are still steps in the right direction. And, who knows, maybe with the next new year there will be a “new you”.