Learning About Managing Common Childhood Habits

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How can you manage your child's habits?

Habits in kids often start because the actions are soothing or comforting. The behaviors become something kids do without thinking about it.

Common habits in kids include things like thumb-sucking, nail-biting, picking their nose, rocking their body, twirling their hair, and public self-touching of the genitals. Here are some things you can do to help manage your child's habits.

  • Remind your child about the habit.

    Habits become automatic. Your child probably doesn't mean to nose-pick so often. But without your child thinking about it, a finger finds its way to a nostril. You can gently remind your child about the habit by saying things like "Please keep your finger out of your nose. It's not polite." Or "Here's a tissue. Please use this instead of picking your nose."

  • Stay calm.

    If you get frustrated and raise your voice, your child might feel stressed. Habits are sometimes a response to stress, which can make a behavior worse.

  • Avoid judgment.

    Try not to call the habit "gross" or "yucky" or "bad." If a child hears that nail-biting is bad or gross, they might start to think, "Then I must be gross too."

  • Refocus your child's attention.

    It can help to distract your child with something that can take the place of the habit. For example, if your child is thumb-sucking, you could try offering a toy or game that will need both hands. Or if you notice your child nail-biting during times of stress or nervousness, a fidget toy or putty to squish can help refocus that energy.

  • Talk about private versus public.

    Some behaviors aren't polite in public. But they are things that people still do in private. Help your child learn what behavior belongs where. For example, if your child touches their genitals in public, help them understand that the behavior itself is okay. But it's a private one, not a public one.

  • Try a reward system instead of punishment.

    You will probably still need to remind your child about the habit. But a system that rewards your child for needing fewer and fewer reminders can help. If not doing the habit starts to feel more rewarding than doing it, your child is more likely to stop. Sticker charts work well with younger children. Or you could try drawing a line on a jar and adding a cotton ball each time you want to reward positive behavior. When the cotton reaches the line, your child gets to choose a reward.

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