Stopping a gross habit

A bad habit could be a reaction to stress

Q: My six-year-old has suddenly started sucking on the sleeves and shoulders of his shirt — even his knees if he’s sitting on the floor! I find this habit gross and can’t imagine why he’s starting it now. Is this just a phase? How do I get him to stop?

A: It is likely that your son’s behaviour is a reaction to stress. He seems to have gone back to an earlier way of soothing himself so that he can feel calm.

Scolding or pressure from you will probably backfire, making him feel the need to suck even more. Ask yourself why he might need increased comfort and safety. Is there any reason why he would be feeling more stress lately — for example, a new sibling or a significant loss, perhaps a conflict in his peer relationships or increased school demands?

His sucking is just a normal early childhood response and, at his age, it is likely to be short-lived. You can help your son give up this habit by providing him with alternate ways to decrease his anxiety. For example, talk with him about what you suspect his worries might be. Offer him understanding, comfort and reassurance. Praise him for coping with his anxiety in other ways. Engage with him in an activity that he enjoys, allowing his feelings of connectedness to you to be the thing that soothes him.

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