Illustration: James Braithwaite
Habits start innocently enough. Your kid has a booger in their nose, they stick their finger up there to get it out and they feel better. Over the course of a cold or an allergy season, if that finger up the nose brings relief enough times, it could turn into a habitual thing they do anytime they need comfort. Same goes for other habits, like nail-biting.
“One of the main reasons kids do these things is they’re self-soothing techniques,” says Caron Irwin, a child development and parenting coach and founder of Roo Parenting in Toronto. “They’ve learned that they make them feel good and provide comfort.”
That doesn’t mean you should let them go at it with abandon, because many habits aren’t exactly socially acceptable, while others can cause harm. But how do you actually get them to stop? Here’s help.
Kids pick their noses to meet a need—there’s something in there that’s bothering them! Over time, they may start to pick out of habit whenever they need comfort or when they are bored, like during screen time.
First of all, don’t shame them—no matter how gross you think it is—because nose-picking is developmentally normal, says Michelle Ponti, a paediatrician in London, Ont.
If your kids are old enough to understand, you can have a brief conversation about how putting their finger up their nose and then touching other things spreads germs. Teach them that when there is something in their nose that needs to be dealt with, they should go to the bathroom and use a tissue to gently pick or blow. Some parents say that by making kids get up and wash their hands every single time they pick their nose, the behaviour stops, as kids don’t usually love leaving what they’re doing to wash up.
If your kids are too young to understand the germ risk, save that chat for later. Instead, be explicit about what you want them to do with their hands. For example, saying “Hands down” is more effective than “Stop picking your nose.” Give them something to hold on to, like a toy or a sippy cup, to keep their hands busy.
If your kid has started picking their nose when they are bored or just sitting around and watching a movie, for example, proactively give them something else to do with their hands during that time. “Give them a sensory ball, like a bumpy ball, or a fidget toy, and tell them to roll that in their hands while they are watching the show,” says Irwin. “That’s going to busy their hands, give them some sort of stimulation. The repetition of it will feel good, be comforting, and it’s distracting their hands from picking their nose.”
If kids don’t learn at home that picking their nose isn’t OK, they’ll end up doing it at school or in other public places and they’ll get called out, which can be super embarrassing. Nose-picking can also cause chronic nosebleeds.
Kids will often start biting their nails because there’s something irritating them, like a dry cuticle or a long fingernail, and it’s either causing discomfort or just capturing their attention. “There’s just something there they need to get,” says Ponti. She adds that nail-biting tends to run in families and can be linked to anxiety. “It may have started with an anxious episode, but then it carries on because it’s self-soothing, or it’s just something that happens inadvertently when they’re watching TV. They put their hands in their mouth, and then start biting,” she says.
Start by getting on top of any physical issues that are making it tempting to bite the nails. “Keep hands and skin well moisturized and keep nails nice and trim and clean so that there aren’t those little jagged edges of skin and nail that kids will feel that need to pick,” says Ponti. Redirecting their behaviour to a different action can also help. “If you see them biting their nails out of habit, redirect them toward something else to keep their fingers or mouth busy, like a fidget toy or a glass of water,” says Irwin. Irwin put Band-Aids on her son’s fingers to stop him from biting while watching a show. You can also apply bitter-tasting nail polish designed to discourage nail-biters.
When they bite their nails, kids are putting dirty, germy fingers in their mouth, which can cause illness. So for that reason alone, you should try to curb it. Nail-biting can also become a lifelong habit that can damage the cuticle as well as the skin around the nail; this can be painful, create chronic skin infections and cause the nails to grow in at awkward angles. Nail-biting can even wear down teeth, leading to chips and breakages. Be aware, though, that even if your kid successfully stops biting their nails, the behaviour could re-emerge under stress. Irwin advises to stay calm and just go back to the strategies that worked the first time.
Twirling hair is a sensory experience. “That repetition of rubbing the hair and twirling it on their finger feels good to them,” says Irwin. “Repetitive behaviours can be self-soothing and self-stimulating,” she says. Some kids might do it when they’re nervous or anxious, like when they are put on the spot or asked to speak in front of a group. For others, it’s a way to handle boredom.
If you’d like your kid to stop, you’ll have a challenge ahead of you, because they’ll often do it when they are away from you, like when they’re trying to fall asleep at night, says Ponti. Irwin suggests putting a hair elastic around their wrist and teaching them to spin that around their wrist instead of twirling their hair. Some parents have had luck with putting a bead on a bracelet and showing their kid how to twirl that when they are bored; others put their child to bed with a doll that has hair, with the instruction to twirl the doll’s hair rather than their own.
This habit isn’t a huge deal and your kid might just stop doing it on their own. But if it escalates—if your kid is pulling hair out, picking at their scalp or pulling out their eyelashes—then you’ll want to get professional help.
Kids love to explore their bodies as a way of understanding them, and touching their private area is no different. If they enjoy the feeling, they will continue to do it.
Never shame your child for getting to know their body. It’s a completely developmentally appropriate thing to be doing. But it’s perfectly reasonable to teach them that touching their privates should be done only in private. In a calm, matter-of-fact way, say something like, “I know that probably feels good, and it’s totally fine to do it, but it’s something we do in private.” Give them permission to excuse themselves to the bathroom or their bedroom. Some kids will go, others won’t.
Ponti points out that some kids will dig into their bum while they’re down there, which is clearly an infection risk. If that’s the case, you’ll want to use the same strategies as for nose-picking—make sure the physical needs, like a clean bum, are met, and then give them something else to busy their hands with.
If your kids aren’t taught that touching their private parts is a private activity, they’ll end up shamed by their peers or other adults for engaging in a perfectly normal human behaviour. Parents need to take the lead here to ensure their kids develop a healthy understanding of what’s OK and what’s not.
“Wearing a mask is a new experience, and we know kids learn and explore things through their senses, like through touching, tasting and feeling,” says Irwin. They may also have started to bite or chew on it at the beginning of the school year, for comfort, and it’s now a habit. Prior to the pandemic, these same kids might have already been chewing on sleeves or shirt collars in a similar bid to understand and explore the object and how it feels on their body.
First, have some empathy. A mask is an unnatural thing for kids to have on their face. “It’s very natural for a child to not accept it,” says Ponti. If your kid needs to wear their mask at school and is struggling, Irwin suggests having them wear it at home in front of the TV, where you can remind them to stop if they start licking it and give them something else to focus on, like a fidget toy.
She also suggests finding out when your kid’s mask breaks are at school and talking to them about how, if their mask is bothering them, they can look forward to the time when they can take it off. Be sure to keep your kid stocked with a fresh supply of clean masks, says Ponti, because dirty and wet ones are uncomfortable and will be more tempting to lick or chew at.
The need for kids to wear masks won’t last forever, but waiting it out isn’t a great plan. Soiling a mask by licking or chewing on it can increase the risk of spreading germs, which defeats the purpose of wearing it.
With breaking habits, consistency is key to getting results. Irwin says even the words you use can make a difference. “I don’t think you can underestimate the consistency of the language,” she says. If your kid is picking their nose or biting their nails, a phrase like “It looks like your hands want to be busy” can cue them that it’s time to switch to a new activity that you’ve shown them, like twiddling their thumbs or rubbing their fingernails on the palm of their hand.
It may take a while for your kid to fully stop these behaviours, but it can be helpful to remember that these habits are providing your kid comfort in a developmentally appropriate way—so be patient as they learn new strategies. It’s up to us to teach them new tricks and help them out along the way.