How to get your kid to break her bad habits

Nose picking, shirt sucking, hair twirling, knee jiggling—your kid might just have one of these bad habits. Here's how to get her to cut it out without feeling shamed.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Rebecca Garcia* of Vancouver was whipping up some lunch, when she glanced over to see her daughter, Manuela, picking her nose. Garcia tactfully offered the five-year-old a Kleenex and then, to emphasize that nose picking wasn’t socially acceptable, she turned to Manuela’s friend Elise Munroe and asked: “You don’t do that, do you?”

“Yes, I do,” Elise said. “And then I eat them.” And she popped a finger into her mouth to demonstrate.

Garcia admits to giggling over the incident, but Elise’s mom, Kathleen Munroe, was appalled about her daughter’s habit. “I try to refrain from saying that it’s dirty, but it is dirty,” she says. “I don’t know how to get her to stop, so I just tell her nobody wants to see her doing that.” If you have an itchy nose, Munroe tells her little girl, “you should go into the bathroom and blow it.”

According to Alyson Schäfer, a Toronto psychotherapist and host of The Parenting Show, Munroe’s approach is just about right — calm but firm. Kids generally don’t mean to be naughty when indulging in yucky habits like nose picking, shirt sucking, hair twirling or knee jiggling, she says, but that doesn’t make those habits any easier to be around. So how can we gently break our kids of their less socially acceptable urges?

Understand the behaviour
First, understand where the behaviour is coming from. Generally, nasty habits fall into two categories: self-soothing (rocking, hair twirling, shirt/thumb/blankie sucking) or a response to discomfort. In the case of nose picking, kids get a crust in their nose, so they pick at it. But picking makes the membrane of the nose raw, causing the crust to rebuild. “It’s a cycle,” says Schäfer. “It becomes an obsession to tidy up the nose.” Neither do kids have an adult’s embarrassment about indulging their less-than-polite habits. Says Munroe: “They’re just taking care of themselves — we’re the ones who are horrified.”

Work with your child to stop the habit
Next, work with your child to stop the habit. You don’t want to police kids, points out London, Ont., paediatrician Fabian Gorodzinsky. It helps, of course, if your child is motivated. “They usually get to a point where they want to grow their nails, or they’re ashamed to go to a sleepover because they’re still sucking their thumb and everyone will know,” says Schäfer. “That’s a good time to step in with some suggestions.”

Can’t wait for peer pressure to work its magic? Create a motivation for your child, suggests Gorodzinsky. For example, ask your doctor to talk to your child about the risk of infection from constant lip licking. Or enlist the help of the dentist to explain the impact that thumb-sucking has on teeth. Says Schäfer: “It’s about being educational rather than being judgmental.”

It’s also OK to remind a child when he is mid-shirt-suck. “They are often not aware they’re doing it,” says Schäfer. She suggests coming up with a non-verbal cue. Rather than telling a nail-biter to stop gnawing, use a sign like tugging on an earlobe or touching the tip of your nose. “It’s a private signal,” Schäfer explains. “It doesn’t feel like you’re correcting them.”

Sometimes, however, a child is either too young to understand or simply not interested in giving up that icky quirk. In this case, ask yourself whether there is an underlying discomfort. Lip lickers, points out Gorodzinsky, are often reacting to dry lips. “But by licking constantly, they end up with a rash around the mouth, which easily gets infected because saliva is dirty,” he says. A layer of Vaseline around the lips helps by protecting skin so it can heal.

Limiting the behaviour or offering a substitution
If that doesn’t work, try limiting the behaviour or offering a substitution. When Munroe insists that Elise pick her nose in the washroom, she is putting limits on where it happens, as well as attaching a cost to it. “It’s not really a punishment, but it becomes a pain,” Gorodzinsky points out. “Eventually, she may decide to give up the behaviour and stay in the room.” If a child’s avid hair twirling is creating a bald patch, you might point it out and offer worry beads instead. “Give them something to do with their hands,” says Schäfer.

Avoid shaming or blaming your child, she stresses. Yelling isn’t likely to help, and it just may hurt. You run the risk of getting into a power struggle, or watching as the habit becomes a form of attention seeking. Eventually, kids know that a particular behaviour will annoy a parent, says Gorodzinsky, and they may feel that negative attention is better than none. “If you figure out that’s what is going on, just ignore the behaviour,” he says.

Can we promise you that your child will grow out of that bad habit? No. There’s a good chance the habit will fade away with time, but it may not. “Look around you sometime and see how many adults have a knee going up and down, or they’re tapping a pencil or picking at their fingernails,” points out Schäfer. “We all have self-soothing behaviours. But we usually learn to indulge them more privately.”

*Names changed by request.

This article was originally published in February 2009.

Read more:
How to get your kid to stop biting his nails
Kids and nose-picking: Why it’s actually totally normal

When is thumb-sucking a problem?

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