Kids develop many different coping mechanisms to help them deal with feelings such as boredom, fatigue, and anxiety. There are as many reasons for these habits as there are habits themselves. For example, some children develop habits by imitating adults, while some simply discover something that feels good to them and then repeat the behavior, which eventually becomes something they can use to lessen tension.

When parents perceive a habit to be a “bad” one, they may become annoyed and scold, nag, or even punish their child to get rid of the behavior. However, focusing on the habit often backfires and might even make a child cling to it more stubbornly. Worse, teasing or nagging can discourage children and make them feel bad about themselves.

There’s good news: childhood habits are typically harmless and usually disappear on their own, especially if you don’t dwell on them.

You can help by avoiding criticism, identifying sources of stress, providing a secure environment, and offering extra attention and acknowledging positive qualities. Here are six common childhood habits and some strategies you can try to encourage outgrowing the habit.

Nail Biting

Nail biting is extremely common among kids, who may bite their nails when they’re bored, nervous, or focused on an activity such as homework or TV. They may also be more likely to bite brittle nails that break easily. Dry hands can also provoke kids to bite the rough skin around the cuticles. In rare cases, nail biting can cause bleeding or infection to the skin around the nail or even small fractures at the edges of the teeth.

To discourage this habit, don’t draw attention to it or mention that your child’s nails look bad; these actions will only make your child self-conscious and may even exacerbate the habit. Instead, help your child establish a nail care routine. Regular use of moisturizer, a nail hardener, and an emery board can soften skin and smooth out nails, making them less tempting to bite.

Nose Picking

At one point or another, virtually all children pick their noses. One problem with nose picking is that it can cause minor nosebleeds and may increase the risk of catching colds since it’s easy to pass respiratory viruses from hand to nose. Pinkeye is a possibility if your child picks their nose and then rubs their eye. Frequent picking can also lead to sores and scabs inside the nose, which may intensify your child’s desire to pick—a difficult cycle to break.

It’s easy to get upset about this socially unacceptable behavior, but try to avoid using negative language (such as “yuck”) when you see your child picking. Keep in mind that young children tend to equate your rejection of their behavior with a rejection of them. An overreaction also may prompt a toddler or preschooler who enjoys provoking you to pick their nose more often.

Instead, be matter-of-fact about nose picking and teach your child not to do it in public. Offer tissues and keep their hands clean and fingernails short to minimize the risk of infection. Humidifiers can help heal sores and scabs. If your child is receptive to the idea, you can have them wear a bandage on their finger to remind them not to pick.

Thumb Sucking

Thumb sucking is an entirely normal comfort behavior for a huge number of children. This behavior usually starts in infancy and can continue for years. Like all habits, thumb sucking is likely to occur when your child is bored, tired, or frustrated. Thumb sucking is harmless unless it continues after the permanent teeth come in, at which point it could cause a misalignment. If your child continues to suck their thumb into the first grade, there may be social repercussions as well.

For a child younger than four, there’s no reason to try to put a stop to thumb sucking. After that, you can lessen their attachment to the behavior by providing a secure environment, preventing boredom by offering ample opportunities for creative play, or suggesting a game that involves both hands. If your child wants to break the habit, you can provide gentle reminders, place a bandage on their thumb, apply a bitter-tasting solution designed for this purpose, or use positive reinforcement such as a star chart (complete with special prizes for earning so many stars).

If your child wants to break the habit, you can provide gentle reminders, place a bandage on their thumb, apply a bitter-tasting solution designed for this purpose, or use positive reinforcement such as a star chart (complete with special prizes for earning so many stars).

Lip Licking or Chewing

Licking and chewing the lips usually starts when a child tries to moisten or smooth chapped lips by either licking them or chewing off rough skin. The more they lick or chew their lips, the rougher and irritated their lips become, resulting in a habitual cycle. Chronic licking irritates not just the lips but also the skin around them, causing soreness and increasing the risk of infection.

Don’t draw attention to the habit, but instead, focus on soothing your child’s lips so that licking and chewing is less tempting. Give your child lip balm to apply throughout the day, or do it yourself for a preschooler. A thin coating of petroleum jelly at bedtime can promote healing as well. Smoothing and softening the lips may just be all you need to do to discourage this habit.

Hair Pulling

One type of hair pulling involves twirling or pulling hair in conjunction with thumb sucking; this usually stops when the thumb sucking stops. Another type of hair pulling is more concerning and is called trichotillomania. Trichotillomania is characterized by having urges to pull one’s own hair out. This kind of hair pulling can become a chronic problem that eventually leads to visible bald spots.

Avoid punishing or scolding; be aware that cutting the hair short, offering bribes, and covering the hands with mittens doesn’t really work. If your child is still very young, the most effective way to handle hair pulling is to focus on breaking the accompanying thumb sucking habit. If your child is older and still engages in hair pulling, talk to their doctor. Sometimes an underlying disorder such as depression is to blame and counseling may help.

Teeth Grinding

Many children and adolescents grind their teeth in their sleep. The reason it occurs isn’t clear, but theories include anxiety and a subconscious effort to correct an irregular bite. Some kids stop this behavior naturally once all their permanent teeth come in; others take it into adulthood with them. Teeth grinding usually results in a hard clenching of the jaw that can lead to an aching jaw, headaches, or worn or loose teeth. There’s not much you can (or should) say or do about this habit because your child is most likely completely unaware of it. Minimize damage to their teeth by staying on top of dental care with regular checkups and discuss the problem with your child’s dentist.

Have you any experience with any of these issues? How have you managed to change your childs habits? Let us know, it can be frustrating and we need all the help we can get!


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, travis_warren123.

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