January is a time when we to start building a new habit and in order to make this successful, we also have to create a more positive, optimistic mindset.

You may have heard the phrase ‘if you can believe it, you can achieve it’ and neuroscience tells us there is a lot of truth in this! When we spend time imagining and visualising ourselves achieving a goal, we help to wire our brain to make it happen.

So, how is your or your family’s New Year’s resolution going?

Has it become a family challenge or did you start your resolution solo?

Perhaps you haven’t actually started a resolution yet– it’s not too late! You can start right now and this is a really good habit we encourage the children and families we work with to start:

  • Think of 3 things you’ve noticed that have been good about your day already
  • Say them out loud
  • Or even jot them down!

There is a very good reason for this! The more we focus on negative experiences and interactions the more our thoughts will become problem-focused. This creates more cortisol (the stress chemical) in our brain, tops up our stress bucket and leaves us feeling more miserable, grumpy or stressed. This can build up over time and before we know it, we’ve mastered the skill of being negative all the time.

When we make a decision to change our focus though, such as writing in a positive diary every night and deliberately looking for the good in our day more consistently, our brain notices and starts to do it more for us. After a while, we will probably find that we don’t need to consciously make so much effort to have more positive thoughts and notice more good things as our brain will start doing it more for us subconsciously.  So, we begin to notice more and more good things about our day.

So, whether your new year goal was keeping a positive diary or something completely different, we’re focusing today’s blog on the importance of having goals, of course with a little neuroscience thrown in to help you continue with those healthy habits you and the kids may have set out to create earlier this month.

Whether we are 7, 17 or 37 having goals can have a really positive effect on our well-being, confidence, sense of achievement and happiness in general.

We often talk about the feel-good neurotransmitters, in particular we talk about serotonin – which is created when we take positive actions, have positive thoughts or interact positively with others.

Another one of the feel-good neurotransmitters is dopamine.  Dopamine is the neurotransmitter which is released when we feel pleasure – it’s part of the reward system of the brain.

Dopamine is often referred to in association with addictive behaviours such as drinking, gaming, chocolate, high adrenaline activities and drug taking.  When we, or our children, are getting dopamine hits from these addictive activities their brains are triggered to repeat these behaviours – and sometimes these aren’t the healthy habits we want to encourage more of.

When we set positive, healthier goals and encourage our children to do so as well, the same reward system comes in to play.  As we achieve our goals, our brain rewards us with dopamine and we then continue to seek more of this by repeating the behaviour and creating a positive reward system that encourages and motivates us to stretch ourselves even further.

Breaking down goals into smaller more achievable steps is really helpful too – if the goal is too big, we might find it too hard to achieve it and not receive the little hits of dopamine along the way that encourage us to keep going.  This can leave us feeling de-motivated and perhaps start looking for the dopamine in more unhelpful ways – like over eating and computer games!

When we break down our bigger goals into achievable steps, we create a win: win – dopamine for setting the stretching goal and dopamine as we achieve each step.

It’s important to note here that the teenage brain has not yet fully matured and their reward system can encourage them to seek out more risky behaviour – they’re not trying to make wrong decisions or even trying to break the rules.  Their brains are responding to the desire to create more dopamine. When we take a risk, that expectation of reward is higher – the teenage brain does not have the same experiences stored in the hippocampus that tells us adults (mainly) that the risk is not worth the reward.

When we support our children is setting goals, we are supporting them in creating a healthy reward system that stores up their good choices and reward responses in the hippocampus (the part of the brain where behaviours are stored).

Top Tips to support your children with creating healthy goals that impact positively on their brain’s reward system, well-being encourages more healthy risk behaviour:

  • When we create OUR OWN goals, we are more likely to achieve them – resist the urge to set your children’s goals for them. Even if you think your ideas are better!
  • Ask questions that encourage your children to set goals that are important to them and their personal interests. What activities do they currently enjoy? This might be art, music, sports or other clubs or activities.
  • Explore with them what the positive benefit is of working towards a particular goal – get them to paint a picture (verbally or literally on paper) of what achieving that goal will be like – what will it mean for them?  What will be better as a result of achieving the bigger goal?
  • Encourage them to break their goals down into steps and ask them, what one small step can they take this week to move closer to THEIR goal?
  • Check the goal is important to them.  Ask them on a scale of 0-10 how much do they want it.  If it’s low on that scale perhaps it’s not the right goal.  Many of us might say we’d love to be a millionaire but wouldn’t necessarily want to have to do what it takes to make that happen so the motivation would be quite low!
  • Ask them to make a commitment – they might decide to share that commitment with another friend or adult – when are they going to do it and what exactly are they going to do? Encourage them to be specific.
  • Encourage them to take a moment to imagine themselves doing it and how good they will feel when they have achieved this next step.