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7 Bad Habits

Sucking their thumb, pulling their hair, picking their nose  -- nearly all children find ways to relieve anxiety, boredom, or fatigue. There are many reasons that kids develop these coping mechanisms: Some imitate adults; others discover something pleasurable or relaxing and then repeat it until it becomes a way to help ease tension.

Even well-meaning parents can get so annoyed at what they perceive to be a "bad" habit that they start to scold or punish their child in a misguided attempt to rid him of it. But focusing excessive attention on his behavior can backfire, and may only make your child more stubborn. Even worse, nagging or teasing can leave him feeling discouraged and miserable.

The good news is that childhood habits are usually harmless and tend to disappear, especially if you refrain from dwelling on them. Instead of criticizing your child, try to pinpoint possible sources of stress or tension at home or school and provide a secure, relaxed environment for him. Offer additional comforting and cuddling, and pay more attention to his positive qualities. If he wants help breaking the habit, ask him if he'd like you to give him gentle reminders.

Here are seven common habits of childhood, with some strategies to adopt while you're waiting for your little one to leave them behind.

Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D., is a pediatrician affiliated with HealthONE and Rose Medical Center, in Denver.

NOSE PICKING

From time to time, virtually every child puts his finger in his nose and removes the contents, either eating them or wiping them on anything that happens to be nearby. Parents, understandably, have trouble remaining neutral about this  -- after all, it's socially unacceptable behavior. While you may not be able to stop this habit completely, you can teach your child (usually by age 4 or 5) not to pick his nose in public and to dispose of the contents in a tissue.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Nose picking can cause minor nosebleeds and may also increase the risk of colds, since respiratory viruses are usually passed from the hands to the nose. If a child rubs his eyes after picking his nose, he could transfer germs and end up with pinkeye or other infections. Frequent nose picking sometimes causes scabs and sores inside the nostrils, intensifying a child's urge to poke around in there.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don't use words like "yuck" or "nasty" when you see your child picking his nose. Young children tend to think you're rejecting them if you're disgusted by their behavior or bodily functions. And overreacting can actually encourage more nose picking by toddlers and preschoolers, who enjoy being able to provoke you.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

Use matter-of-fact comments to teach your child not to pick his nose in public. Offer him tissues, and wash his hands often and keep his fingernails trimmed to decrease the risk of starting an infection.

To help heal and soften irritating scabs, run a humidifier or vaporizer in his room. Every day apply a dab of petroleum jelly to the center wall inside the nose with a cotton swab. If your child is cooperative, you can give him a bandage to wear on his finger as a reminder not to pick.

HAIR PULLING

There are two different types of hair pulling. The first usually begins when a child is under 5 and begins twirling or pulling her hair while sucking her thumb or finger. Most likely she will stop fiddling with her hair when she stops sucking her thumb.

The second type is more serious and usually occurs in older children. Known as trichotillomania, it's characterized by an irresistible urge to pull out one's hair and tends to be a chronic problem.

HEALTH CONCERNS

In some cases, hair pulling can lead to conspicuous bald spots.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don't punish your child for fiddling with her hair or try to prevent pulling by cutting her hair short. Having her wear mittens on her hands to make her more aware of the habit doesn't really work, and neither does offering toys or other bribes.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

The most effective way to curb hair pulling in preschoolers is to ignore it and focus instead on trying to break the thumb- or finger-sucking habit that often accompanies it. Of course, this will work only if your child is motivated to stop sucking her thumb and cooperates with you.

If your older child pulls her hair, talk to her pediatrician. Sometimes counseling helps uncover an underlying disorder, such as depression.

THUMB SUCKING

It's been estimated that nearly half of American kids under the age of 4 suck their thumb or finger, and most experts believe such comfort sucking is entirely normal. The habit usually begins when a baby discovers her thumb and realizes how pleasurable it is to suck. In fact, thumb sucking helps an infant learn to soothe herself when she's alone.

Thumb sucking is often combined with other repetitive behaviors, such as hair twirling or stroking a security object, and, like all habits, usually occurs when a child is tired, bored, or frustrated. Although most children give it up by the time they're 3 or 4, nearly 20 percent continue beyond age 5.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Sometimes kids get sores or calluses on the thumb or the nail becomes infected. If a child continues to suck her thumb after her permanent teeth come in, around age 6, the teeth could become misaligned, requiring braces. Thumb sucking past kindergarten may also threaten a child's self-esteem: A study of first-graders found that those who sucked their thumbs were rated less desirable as friends and classmates than those who didn't.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Thumb sucking is so normal and harmless that no attempt to stop it should be made before a child is 4. And even if your child is older, you shouldn't belittle, scold, or punish her when you catch her doing it.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

Besides providing a secure environment for your preschooler, give her plenty of opportunities to play creatively as a way to prevent boredom. Or distract her by getting her involved in a game that requires both hands.

If your child is at least 4 and wants help breaking the habit, you might try giving gentle reminders; applying a bitter-tasting solution to her thumb; putting a bandage on the thumb; or using positive reinforcement, such as a chart with stars that can be redeemed for special treats.

If your child is over 6 and the habit is causing dental malocclusions, her doctor or dentist may recommend a physical barrier, such as an orthopedic thumb splint or a dental appliance that prevents the thumb from comfortably resting against the roof of her mouth. Because prolonged thumb sucking can be related to emotional stress or insecurity, you should discuss the habit with your child's pediatrician.

MASTURBATION

Finding your child touching or rubbing his genitals can be very disturbing to parents who mistakenly believe that small children don't have any sexual feelings. These parents may consider the behavior a bad habit, but most of the time, it's not. Babies discover their genitals just as they learn about other body parts  -- by reaching for them  -- and then learn that they are a source of pleasurable sensations.

The innocent repetition of what feels good is an entirely normal part of the process of self-discovery and play. Yet many adults harbor conflicted feelings about masturbation, viewing it as somehow immoral or unhealthy. When parents overreact to genital exploration, a toddler can conclude there is something wrong with him.

Nearly all children masturbate occasionally, most commonly around the age of 4 and again when they reach adolescence. Preschoolers tend to masturbate by stimulating their genitals with their hand, rubbing their thighs together, or rubbing against an object. The child may look preoccupied or flushed while doing this.

Admittedly, most parents would rather see their child suck his thumb than tug at his penis. But like nose picking, the most you'll probably be able to control is where the habit is practiced. As a general rule, once children sense that such behavior is inappropriate in public, they masturbate only in private, so that parents become less aware of it, and less worried.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Contrary to numerous myths, masturbation doesn't cause any physical symptoms or pose any health risks. The greatest danger lies in the way a parent reacts. Children may suffer emotional harm when they are made to feel guilty for exploring and enjoying their own body or to feel that what they are doing is naughty.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Despite your surprise and discomfort, try not to react negatively or make judgmental comments if you catch your child in the act. Such a response will only make your child feel ashamed. As with other habits, overreacting can have the opposite effect of preventing further episodes  -- your child may just masturbate more, which will make him feel guilty and decrease his self-esteem.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

When you teach your child about body parts, use the proper names for his genitals. If you find your preschooler masturbating in front of other people, distract him with another activity. When he's old enough to understand  -- by age 4 or 5  -- explain that touching the genitals is something we don't do in front of other people.

Since masturbation is such an emotionally laden issue, it's important that others respond to it calmly as well. Make sure other caretakers are aware of how you're handling the situation. Despite your best efforts to remain cool and matter-of-fact when your child engages in self-exploration, he could be left feeling guilty and confused if a grandparent or baby-sitter has a strong negative reaction.

But you should consult your child's pediatrician if your youngster masturbates compulsively, if he does it in public despite being told not to, or if he tries to masturbate others. It's possible that he's been exposed to sexually explicit material or been sexually abused by someone. You should also talk with your child's doctor for guidance if you're highly conflicted about masturbation.

NAIL BITING

Many kids bite their nails between the ages of 10 and 18, although the habit can begin as early as age 3. After age 10, it's actually more common in boys than girls.

Children often bite their nails when they're nervous, bored, or absorbed in an activity, such as watching TV or doing homework. And they are more likely to bite their nails when they're brittle. Once a nail is bitten off or broken, it becomes easier to continue the habit, perhaps in a subconscious attempt to make the rough edges even.

Dry, chapped hands also provoke more biting: The skin around the cuticles becomes rough, prompting nail biters to chew and create a smooth surface.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Nail biting can inflame the skin and cuticles around the nail, causing bleeding and infection. It can also cause small fractures at the edges of the teeth, especially the incisors.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don't draw attention to the habit or tell your child that his nails are unsightly, as this will only make him self-conscious and anxious and may encourage the habit. Don't let him use his nails to pry things open or to dig in the dirt; that causes rough edges and hangnails when his nails break, which increases his urge to bite them.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

Begin a daily program of nail care: Use a moisturizer to lubricate your child's nails and a hardener to strengthen them. Smooth out edges and hangnails with an emery board.

Apply hand lotion several times a day. If your child is a girl, you can also try putting on a clear polish to further strengthen nails.

LIP LICKING OR CHEWING

Biting or licking the lips tends to start when a child tries to moisten badly chapped lips or smooth them by gently chewing off dried, rough skin. When the child is tense, tired, or bored, the behavior escalates and is then reinforced, since the more the lips are licked and chewed, the more uneven and rough they become and the more irresistible it becomes to chew the rough edges.

HEALTH CONCERNS

Chronic licking irritates the lips and the skin around the mouth, making the area more vulnerable to infection and causing discomfort and soreness. Usually, there's a telltale ring of red, irritated skin surrounding the mouth.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don't draw attention to the habit  -- for example, don't tell your child he's spoiling photographs if he comes out with a red ring around his mouth.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

Give your child some lip balm and have him apply it liberally throughout the day. (You'll probably have to do this for your preschooler.) This will smooth the rough edges and help discourage him from chewing the skin. To prevent cracks from reopening, it's better to apply balm with up-and-down strokes instead of rubbing it across the mouth. At bedtime, apply a coating of lanolin (preferably USP-modified) or petroleum jelly on and around his lips to promote overnight healing.

TEETH GRINDING

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, occurs in about 15 percent of all children and adolescents while they sleep. No one knows for sure what causes it. According to one theory, it's simply a nervous habit caused by anxiety; another suggests that grinding represents a subconscious effort to correct an irregular bite. In general, children may grind their teeth until all the permanent teeth have come in, although the habit can persist even into adulthood.

HEALTH CONCERNS

When a child grinds her teeth at night, she usually clenches her jaw with more force than she could consciously exert during the day. If she does this frequently, she could end up with an aching jaw, worn or loose teeth, and headaches.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Don't criticize your child or wake her up to tell her to stop grinding. She's probably completely unaware of the habit.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD

Be vigilant about dental care: Regular checkups can help you keep tabs on the problem.

As you should with any of these habits, look for ways to reduce stress in your child's life: Offer lots of praise and emotional support when she seems worried and spend more time talking about her concerns. If she's the type of child who's especially eager to please you, make sure your expectations aren't contributing to her anxiety. And make bedtime as pleasant and relaxing as possible.

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