Breaking Bad ... Habits
From thumb sucking to picking your nose, a pediatrician has advice
Every parent has experienced a similar moment: You’re at the grocery store with your toddler and run into an old college roommate, a high school friend’s mom or a former neighbor. As you’re filling your acquaintance in on the past few years, you realize he or she hasn’t met your child. As you turn to introduce your little one, you realize your pride and joy has his finger up his nose, and you’re mortified.
The good news is: nearly every child has at least one habit that causes his or her parent to cringe, so you aren’t alone. Some of the most common habits children demonstrate are thumb sucking, nail biting, nose picking and hair twirling.
“In and of themselves, none of these are a particularly bad habit,” said Catherine Nicholas, M.D., a Cook Children’s pediatrician at the McCart Neighborhood Clinic in Fort Worth. “However, some are less socially acceptable the older that children get.”
Habits are a subconscious behavior a child demonstrates as coping strategies for development, and they don’t always mean something is severely wrong. Natural, self-soothing mechanisms, such as thumb sucking, are an appropriate developmental stage and will usually be outgrown, typically leaving a child without negative effects.
Many parents start to worry about their child’s thumb sucking when they feel like their son or daughter is “too old.” Most children naturally stop sucking their thumb by age 5. Children won’t be ready to break a habit until then. If you try to implement habit reversal on a child who isn’t old enough, he or she won’t understand, and you’ll find yourself unnecessarily frustrated.
Breaking the Pattern
If the habit continues, children will usually quit on their own once they realize their peers at school no longer suck their thumbs. While thumb sucking may stop once school begins, other learned behaviors will be introduced to your child and new habits, such as nail biting, might form.
“Modeling is an appropriate developmental thing, so copying is normal. It’s part of learning,” Dr. Nicholas said. “Nail biting is a learned behavior, picked up from others.”
While there aren’t necessarily harmful effects due to nail biting, it’s a behavior that can quickly spread germs, especially during flu season. This is where habit-reversal can become incredibly helpful.
Identify the Behavior
Because habits are subconscious, children usually can’t tell when they are demonstrating the behavior. If you catch your daughter twirling her hair, gently guide her to the bathroom mirror and allow her to see what she looks like when she’s twirling her hair. This will let her identify the feeling with the action.
If possible, explain to your child why it’s important to stop the behavior. For example, nose picking can easily spread germs and cause classmates to become sick.
When you notice your children demonstrating the habit, re-direct them. Have them put their hands in their pockets, fold them in their laps or hold them behind their backs.
For older children, use an index card to mark down each time they perform the habit. They can keep track for themselves when they’re at school, as well. As the weeks go by, they’ll notice a significant drop in the number of times they’ve demonstrated the behavior and will be encouraged to continue.
Encouragement is key when it comes to habit reversal; punishment or disciplinary actions won’t get you far.
“Kids are generally not doing this on purpose,” Dr. Nicholas said. “They’re not doing the habit to annoy people; it’s subconscious. Being supportive, nonjudgmental and not blaming them is very important. Habit reversal can take several months, but it will be much more effective with positive reinforcement.”
When you notice your child isn’t demonstrating the habit, praise him or her. Say, “I see you have your hands folded nicely in your lap. Way to go!” or “I’ve noticed you haven’t been biting your nails lately. I am so proud of you.” A reward system, such as ice cream with dad or one night of a later bedtime, is also a fun way to encourage your child.
Odds are, you aren’t around your child every minute of the day. Share the goal to break a particular habit with grandparents or a teacher. When they join in on the positive reinforcement, children will feel empowered and have a sense of accomplishment when they complete the habit reversal process.
Is there a habit you wish you could break? Join in with your child! This is an excellent opportunity to work toward a common goal and achieve something together. After all, your child often wants to be just like you
It’s important to remember patience. Habit reversal can often take several months, usually with periods of relapse. When children become discouraged, remind them of how well they were doing when they first started and how it’s normal to take a few steps backward.
“Most habits are fairly benign. The point is to really address them when they are causing distress to children,” said Catherine Nicholas, M.D., a Cook Children’s pediatrician in Fort Worth. “If it’s not bothering them and it’s not bothering the parents, and it’s not causing them long-term physical or emotional pain, it’s not something to worry about. Usually when they’re older, they will ask their parents to help them stop.”
And when that time comes, make it a habit to be there for your child.
About the source
Catherine Nicholas, M.D., grew up in Portland, Oregon. She received her undergraduate degree in music from Linfield College in 2005, and graduated from Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine in 2009. She always knew she wanted to work in pediatrics, and completed her residency at Children’s Medical Center, Dallas in 2012. She enjoys getting to know the families at her clinic, watching the children grow up over time and building a relationship with them and their parents. Some of her medical interests include childhood nutrition, preventive care, and parent/patient education. She strongly believes in the importance of childhood vaccinations.
She met her husband Greg in college, and they have been married since 2010. Although they are both transplants to Texas, they love their “adopted” home state. Some of Dr. Nicholas’s hobbies include photography, craft projects, music, running, travel, and learning Spanish.