4 Ways to Help Your Stubborn Parents Kick Their Unhealthy Habits

Nudging your parents to change their behaviour and adopt a healthier lifestyle doesn’t always yield results. Here are four extra steps you can take to overcome resistance and push for greater changes.

We all know what’s best for us —regular exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep — so do our parents, but their habits often overrule what they know is good for them. Most of us have tried to convince our parents into giving up unhealthy life choices — whether it’s drinking too much, or smoking packs of cigarettes a day. “I’m old enough to do what I want” is the usual response to these reminders. Stubborn refusal can make caring for an ageing parent more difficult than it already is. Now, experts say there are ways to work around it to achieve their (or mostly our) end goal.

1) Look into the root cause

Before you forbid your parents to do certain things, it is imperative that you understand why they are reluctant to change and what shapes their behavior. Do they smoke because of stress or boredom? Is there an illness or injury that stops them from exercising? Once you’ve identified the triggers, you can develop interventions to halt those habits, for instance, introduce alternatives to stress management or get exercising advice from a physiotherapist

2) Bring in the jokes

Sprinkle some humour into your conversation can go a long way. When placed wisely, a joke can disarm people and create a favourable atmosphere for persuasion to take place. It also serves as a great way to defuse tension should it arise during a discussion.

Carolyn Rosenblatt, author of the caregiving handbook “The Boomer’s Guide to Aging Parents,shares how a good joke works its magic on a senior. “After I had the guy cracking up for a sec, I’d quickly take advantage of that moment and slip into the subject about which I wanted to convince him. Now it was time to get out of bed, even if it hurts and yes, you have to do it now. The immediate “laughterglow” of sharing something a little funny is perfect for breaking down resistance.”

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3) Pick the right time

Timing is everything, and researchers say the best time to approach the person you need to persuade is perhaps after they have a satiable meal. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights that judges were six times more likely to grant parole in a ruling made after a meal or snack than when it is made before a meal. Researchers explain that people intuitively link the positive feelings from food with the message they are presented with, and thus see things in a more optimistic manner. 

Of course, not everyone has the time to prepare a homemade dinner. But the takeaway is, make sure your parents are in a good mood when you bring up the subject. It can reduce the odds of resistance.

4) Rephrase your wording

One of the reasons why nudging doesn’t always work is because it sounds more like a lecture than a discussion. No one wants to be reminded of the erroneous decisions they made or have their beliefs attacked directly. “You should avoid attacking a person by telling them that they’re wrong or being stupid,” Dr. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Florida, told Reader’s Digest. “Once an attack is made, any chance at persuading them is gone.” 

One of the tricks to raise your concern without coming across as critical is to make use of the “yes…and” technique. Compared to the usual “yes…but” approach, “yes…and” creates a sense of openness, affirmation, and positivity. From there, you can then build your own opinion upon the proposed one instead of denying its value.

For example, if your parent says “I’m not taking these medications because I don’t like the way they make me feel,” instead of replying, “yes, I understand, but it’s for your own good,” say “yes, and I feel the same way when I have mine. Here’s what I’d do …”  

Persuading a stubborn parent can feel akin to talking to a headstrong child — only the former has an ingrained set of values and way of life. It is a skill that takes time to master, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue. If you are not sure which method best suits your loved one’s needs, you can always consult a professional