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Breaking your child’s bad habits

The thumb sucking. The nail biting. The nose picking, eye rolling, backtalk, or insistent use of “stupid” in place of her brother’s first name. Rare is the child who is completely free of bad habits. And that can make parents want to tear their own hair out. How can you cope with your child’s bad habits?

ThumbsuckingMany bad habits are first learned in childhood and persist throughout our adult lives. How old were you when you gave up biting your nails? And do you still backslip occasionally, when you’re really stressed? It’s no wonder, then, that seeing the same habits in your kids makes you just a little bit crazy. It’s normal to want to rid your children of bad habits, but take a few minutes to consider what’s going on.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), not only do the causes of “bad habits” remain unknown, but often children are completely unaware of their actions. That’s why some adults still return to the comfort found in such repetitive movements.

The good news

Even if you do nothing, there’s a good chance your child will outgrow the habit that bothers you. As kids mature and grow, they find more socially acceptable ways to self-soothe. And peer pressure can be a positive thing as it helps children learn to control themselves. So while your three-year-old simply can’t seem to keep his finger out of his nose, the same child will likely stop on his own by age 6 or 7, says the AAP.

The bad news

The downside is that you really have precious little recourse. “Punishment is not an effective way to eradicate habits,” says the AAP in Caring for Your School-Age Child. In fact, calling attention to a bad habit may actually increase your child’s stress level — and actually make the situation worse. And while ignoring something that bothers you may not come naturally, it really is the best course of action in most cases.

What you can do

So must you resign yourself to years of frustration? Not at all. Many kids want to break bad habits but don’t know how. So give your kids the option to ask for your help. If they’re open to the idea, you can try some time-tested techniques.

  • Reward your child when she’s not engaging in the bad habit, particularly if you see her catch herself and stop on her own.
  • Create a star chart and reward even small successes. You can build on these over time.
  • Together with your child, agree on a code word you’ll use to remind her of the habit she’s trying to break. So if you see the thumb go in the mouth at the mall, instead of “thumb,” you can say, “broccoli,” or whatever you choose.

When to worry

If you have any concerns about your child’s bad habits, talk to your pediatrician. Most habits are completely benign, so there’s generally no cause for alarm. Even if your child bites his cuticles until they bleed, it’s unlikely that he’s doing any permanent damage.

On the other hand, if your child is engaging in something like cutting, you need to seek medical help immediately. Remember, this is rare behavior, and it goes far beyond the everyday habits that plague most parents.

Read more on kids and cutting or self-mutilation here.

Moving on

As hard as it is, try to let your children’s bad habits resolve themselves. Very few high school students are thumbsuckers. Remember that you once had your own bad habits (and maybe you still have one or two), and you’re still pretty great. Your kids are, too.

Let us hear from you! What’s your kid’s most annoying habit? Tell us in the comments!

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