I have a client who finds herself in this exact dilemma. She has supported her two adult daughters for years – but has now realised that by continuing this habit, she will inadvertently be responsible for her worst nightmare coming true: being reliant on her children to support her in retirement. And this is not the outcome she or her daughters want.
Getting out of this habit loop is not easy. My client and many other parents find themselves in a supporting role. And it’s no one’s fault. It is a co-dependent, unwritten contract between parent and child. It makes us as parents feel good to be needed, and helping our children make us feel loved, so we keep stepping into the fixer role – most often before being asked. The unfortunate result is that we create a co-dependency and subconsciously deny our children the power to stand on their own two feet.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear separated the habit loop into four separate parts: cues, cravings, response and rewards. By breaking the process of building habits down into these steps help us understand how it works and how we can create new habits – or change bad ones.
In my client’s case, her motivation (or craving) is to rescue her children: it makes her feel loved and needed (reward). She responds by fixing and saving them financially. The problem with her habit loop is that her cues and cravings are sabotaging her future financial independence. So instead of rewarding, she is punishing her future self.
So how do we break a destructive habit loop?
Start by looking at your habit cues (the noticing of the reward to come.) If you want to break a bad habit, you need to remove some triggers. To create new habits, you may have to introduce new cues into your environment.
In the client story I’ve mentioned, the thought and conviction that you must provide for your adult children would be a bad habit. She could potentially change her cue by making the reward unattractive. In her case, the reality is that by continuously giving, she will end up being financially dependent on her daughters.
She could replace the bad habit with a good one by relinquishing the fixer role and putting herself first. A positive habit would be to start putting money away for her future. When funds are automatically set aside for saving and investment purposes, you can only spend what’s left. And this will clearly define how much remains to spend on fixing or helping.
Having a reason or WHY is essential to make this new habit sustainable. My client’s ‘why’ is to secure her financial future. It is not about sabotaging her daughters but freeing them from being responsible for her in her old age. It’s not about loving them any less but helping them stand on their own feet.
I have seen this play out in my own life. My mom was always rescuing my brother – it made her feel needed and loved. It was only when she passed away that my brother learnt independence and started doing things for himself. The habit was not serving either of them.
I came across this exercise by James Clear that I found very helpful:
If you are breaking a habit, you must replace the bad habit with a good one to fill the empty space. If you are creating a new habit, use an existing habit as a cue for the new habit to be implemented.
Wishing you habit loops that serve both you and your children, now and in the future.