Whether it’s adhering to curfew, doing homework, or being polite to their parents, we’re sure you have a number of habits you wish your child would adopt—or change.

But if you’ve ever tried getting your child to stop a bad habit, you probably know how hard it is to change their behavior. Even if your teen promised they’d never stay out late again, drink too much again, or curse at you again, things may have gone back to the way they were within a few days—if you’re lucky. So how can you get your adolescent to stop their bad habit?

Difference Between Habit and Addiction

First, it’s important to distinguish between a habit and an addiction. A habit is anything you do routinely. There are good habits—like flossing, keeping a room clean, or saying “please” and “thank you.” There are also habits that become interfering and detrimental—such as spending too much time on your phone, going to sleep late, or drinking too much. If your teen has tried to stop their habit numerous times but simply cannot, their habit can actually be an addiction. For now, let’s discuss bad habits that have not yet reached the addiction level.

How to Break Your Child’s Habit

When it comes to breaking a bad habit your child has adopted, you need to choose your battles. Parents should come up with no more than three habits that they want their child to change, and make sure these are priorities. Health-related issues take precedence. If your child is out drinking every night, the battle about homework may not be as relevant.

Then, once you’ve narrowed down your list, you need to talk to your adolescent about why stopping this habit is necessary, and important. No one—adults included—wants to do something if they don’t know why. If your child doesn’t see the relevance of this issue, they just won’t change. So, what actually happens to you if you drink too much? Why is driving too fast risky, even if “I’m being really careful”? Why is spending too much time on social media or your phone bad for you? Explain all this to them.

In this conversation, you must be extremely careful to make the issue just about the habit, not about the child’s character. Lumping the habit with a whole bunch of other issues you have with the child is probably not going to work. For example, if your child’s habit is about waking up too late, don’t say “You’re just always late to things, and you always procrastinate,” and bring up a whole litany of other situations where he isn’t punctual. That makes the child feel terrible about himself. Keep it specific.

Once you specify the habit and ensure that your child has understood why breaking this habit is relevant, then you need to come up with an external reward. Choose a reward that you know your teen really wants, as reward reinforces behavior. Every time your child succeeds in this new habit, reward them immediately following the action. Let’s take going to sleep on time as an example. Every time your adolescent is in bed by 11 (or whatever time you feel is appropriate), they can earn a star. Ten stars gets them an iPad. Feel free to play around with the numbers and rules until you come up with a reward plan you feel makes sense for your own child.

How to Break Your Teen’s Addiction

A habit becomes an addiction when your teen can’t stop doing it, and it’s becoming interfering and detrimental in their lives. So, how to break it?

That’s easier said than done.

While many habits can be resolved with rewards and a strong measure of willpower, addictions are more complex. Most addictions—whether it’s drug or alcohol addiction, gambling, food addiction, porn or sex addiction, or internet/social media addiction—actually change the physical matter of the brain. That means that when your adolescent is addicted to something, it can be physically impossible for them to stop doing it unless they receive therapy, professional treatment, and sometimes even medication. Admitting them into a mental health, drug rehab, or dual diagnosis treatment program may be the best thing you can do to help your addicted teen.

Professional treatment is vital for your teen if their addiction has completely taken over their life to the point that their home and school life have been impaired, and they spend most of the day trying to fulfill their cravings. Speak to a mental health professional to decide which level of rehab your teen needs. Depending on the severity of your child’s addiction, a residential treatment center (RTC), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or intensive outpatient program (IOP) may be appropriate.


  • Dr. Lauren Kerwin, Ph.D.

    Executive Clinical Director

    Evolve Treatment Centers

    Dr. Lauren Kerwin is a licensed clinical psychologist in California and the Executive Clinical Director at Evolve Treatment Centers, a Los Angeles-headquartered group of rehabilitation facilities focused on adolescents struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. With over twenty years of clinical experience working with adolescents, adults and families, she specializes in the treatment of suicidality, non-suicidal self-injury, substance abuse, eating disorders and behavioral problems. For more information, call (866) 915-3443.