Breaking Bad ... Habits
Thumbsucking, Nose Picking, Nail Biting and More ... a Pediatrician has Advice
If you have kids, you’re probably frustrated with some of the bad habits that they’ve picked up. Just this week I had two parents ask me how to get their child to stop biting his nails.
“He just will not quit biting his nails no matter how much I yell at him!”
Complaints such as these are quite common. Sometimes it feels tricky to decipher between which habits are typical and can be ignored and which should not. Plus, even if it’s best to just ignore the habit, it is always much easier said than done.
Thumbsucking, nose picking, fingernail biting, and hair twirling are usually much more distressing to us as parents than to the kids themselves. In this article, I will cover some of the most common childhood habits, potential associated issues and some tips for you to manage these behaviors.
1.Thumbsucking is probably the most common childhood habit. It usually starts at some point during infancy and diminishes as children grow older. Typically, older children will limit this to when they are at home, while watching TV or when stressed. Frequently, it is also accompanied by cuddling a lovey like a stuffed animal or blanket. Usually, thumbsucking will diminish on its own, and if it does not by age 5, it usually will soon thereafter thanks to the magic of peer pressure. Plus, once kids are about 6 years old they naturally will tend to develop more self-control of their own behaviors, making it easier for them to quit this habit on their own.
Some problems that might arise if thumbsucking lasts too long include dental issues (such as an overbite) or even finger infections. Even so, this is a good example of a habit that I don’t want you to call too much attention to. In young children, it is perfectly acceptable to ignore it, since there is a very good chance it will go away by itself. In older children, try your hardest to keep a calm, nonchalant tone when working with them to break this habit.
2.Nose picking is the next famously annoying habit. Almost every child goes through this phase at some point - even possibly wiping the results on something nearby… or even (shudder) eating it. During pre-school years it’s good to teach your child not to pick their nose in public and to dispose of the contents into a tissue. Just like for thumbsucking, it’s best to keep your cool. Avoid saying “Eww” or “Yucky” since that could have a shaming effect on children or, in some cases, encourage it even more! Sometimes nose pickers can end up with minor cuts or scrapes inside the nose since the skin there is so thin and delicate. Try to keep your child’s nails short to avoid any damage or infections. If you’re having difficulties with dryness, try running a humidifier or vaporizer in their room at night, apply some petroleum jelly to the tip of their nose at night or spray some nasal saline into their nostrils before bed to moisturize it.
3.Next on the list of bad habits is body rocking. Many people don’t realize that some children will normally engage in body-rocking; especially before bed. This usually occurs when these children are settling themselves to sleep and can sometimes be rough enough to shake the entire bed. There is often no need to intervene. On the contrary, if your child is missing developmental milestones and is engaging in body rocking, head banging, unusual hand movements or other similar behaviors this is something I would discuss with your pediatrician.
4.Fingernail biting is also very common. It typically starts during school age years and can last even into adulthood. This can lead to extremely short fingernails and sometimes infections of the nails, damage to teeth and even gingivitis. As with other habits, positively reinforcing behaviors and ignoring the biting can help your child quit. There are also clear, bitter-tasting nail polishes available over the counter that you can apply to help with this process; although to be honest, the success with using these polishes alone is pretty minimal.
5.Last but not least is hair tugging or pulling. There are two types of hair-pulling: one you can ignore and one you shouldn’t. Many young children will tug on or twirl their hair while sucking their thumb. Sometimes this can even cause some hairs to fall out. This behavior is not of concern and usually stops once the thumbsucking stops. In young children, it’s best to ignore this behavior, or turn your efforts toward eliminating the thumbsucking habit.
The other type of hair pulling is called Trichotillomania and is seen usually in older children. Trichotillomania is the irresistible urge to pull one’s hair. This typically will lead to bald spots on a child’s head. Sometimes this can be linked to underlying stresses, depression or OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). If you are concerned about your child’s hair pulling, talk to your pediatrician because counseling can be very helpful in these cases.
Why do kids tend to have these bad habits?
The truth is, we really don’t know; but, it seems that many of these behaviors tend to have a calming effect for children. Many people notice that habits tend to ebb and flow – and tend to increase especially during times of stress. Most often it seems these habits will relieve anxiety, boredom or stress; however, some children catch on to our irritation and engage in these annoying behaviors to get a reaction out of their parents.
How do you make it stop?
You’ll be happy to know that children will naturally grow out of many of these bad habits even without any intervention. As I mentioned, it certainly seems that some of these behaviors can be calming mechanisms for children; so, if we ridicule, use harsh words or punishment, the tension that these habits attempt to relieve can increase and thus the habit may get worse.
If these are lasting longer than we like, or are causing problems, there are a few steps that you can take to help them stop:
1.Stay Calm. Calmly point out that you don’t like these behaviors and explain why.
2.Make a plan together. Talk to your child, set goals and make a plan to work together to get them to quit.
3.Give suggestions for an alternative behavior. For example, “Don’t pick your nose in public. I’d rather you use a tissue instead.”
4.Water the roses, not the weeds. Provide positive reinforcement when you catch your child not engaging in their bad habits. This works exponentially better than punishments.
5.Give gentle, calm reminders. Quitting a bad habit can take some time, so try to be patient.
When does a habit become more than just that?
There are actually a few bad habits that I don’t want you to ignore. Trichotillomania, as mentioned above, is when an older child pulls on their hair so much that bald patches will occur. This usually requires counseling by a trained mental health professional. Another one is pica. Pica is when a person eats objects which are not food and this is often be associated with anemia. So, if your child is commonly trying to eat non-food items, talk to your pediatrician.
Lastly, cutting or self-injury in adolescence. Any self-injurious behavior is a sign that needs professional attention; I strongly recommend that you talk about this with your pediatrician right away.
When it comes down to it, most bad habits are an annoying phase that kids will go through. Unfortunately, most children will go through at least a few of these phases at some point. As annoying as they often may be, for the most part it is simply best to stay calm and positive.
As always, if you have concerns, run it by your pediatrician.
Get to know Jennifer Gittleman, D.O.
Dr. Gittleman, D.O. is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Fort Worth (Clearfork). Our Fort Worth (Clearfolk) doctors are specialists in the health care of infants, children and adolescents. Our team includes board certified pediatricians, that together with you, will get your kids on the path to leading happy and healthy lives.
New and existing Clearkfork pediatrician office patients can make an appointment by calling 817-592-8199 or by click here.