Breaking Bad Habits

Children are naturally curious, which is why often they create negative habits that are difficult to break. Bad habits are repeated or habitual negative behaviors that are socially unacceptable or inappropriate. Usually, habits form as a coping strategy for moments where the child may feel bored, frustrated, or insecure. Some bad habits begin as mimicked actions or behaviors of a peer. The most common bad habits in children are sucking their thumb, picking their nose, biting nails, grinding teeth, touching private parts, frequently lying, complaining and talking back.

Thumb sucking is one of the earliest bad habits. As soon as babies are born, they will suck their thumb and continue until the age of two to four years old. While most stop sucking their thumb naturally, many require intervention. Thumb sucking is a natural reflex in babies that aids in personal security whenever they need soothing or while going to sleep. Long-term thumb sucking can result in dental problems, such as protruding from teeth. If your child is of understandable age, try to explain why the habit is bad and offer them rewards to stop doing it. If the habit is a reaction to stress, identify the issue and offer guidance or comfort in other ways.

Nose picking is one of the most common habits in children of all ages. Often, nose picking is a result of mucus build-up or boredom. Aside from its social stigma, nose picking can result in nose bleeds or increase the risk of bacteria and viruses in the nose. To prevent nose picking, gently explain that it is not socially acceptable and encourage them to use a tissue. Each time you see them picking their nose, ask them to go wash their hands. This inconvenience is a deterrent. To prevent younger children from picking their nose, apply mittens or gloves to their hands. Maintain a short finger nail length to prevent bleeding and infection within the nostril cavity. If you find their nose is dry, apply saline drops or nasal gel to keep the nose moist.

Nail biting is a bad habit not only in children, but also in adults. If childhood nail biting is not corrected, it will continue into adulthood and become a persistent habit. Nail biting is a result of stress, anxiety, or boredom. If is due to stress, address the cause. If not due to stress, try to keep the child’s hands busy. Applying nail polish can discourage nail biting. For older children, explain why they should not bite their nails and ask them to stop. When the habit is being addressed with action, offer praise or reward.

Teeth grinding is a habit that affects between 20-30% of children. The medical term for jaw clenching and teeth grinding is called bruxism and usually occurs when children are under stress or clenching and grinding teeth while asleep, but can also be due to teething or misalignment of the upper and lower teeth. Most children outgrow bruxism once they lose their baby teeth, but others can continue on into adolescence. Before trying to stop the habit, identify its cause. Anything related to teething or sore muscles is temporary. Stress related bruxism can be avoided by addressing the cause. If teeth grinding occurs during sleep, help the child relax before bed. In most cases, dental consultation can be helpful in preventing bruxism.

As a result of natural curiosity, children will often touch private parts in an effort to explore their body. Touching, pulling, rubbing, or poking are common in young children between the ages of two to six years old. As they grow older, children can exhibit certain sexual behaviors such as looking at or trying to touch someone else’s private parts, showing their private parts to others, sitting close to someone, or being curious about naked bodies. All of these acts are done out of curiosity and are often harmless. With intervention, these habits can be corrected. The biggest aid in breaking this habit is education. Teaching your child about his body parts, naming appropriately, and distinguishing which parts are private will go a long way. Explain to them that it is not okay to look at or touch someone’s body, and it is not acceptable for someone else to look at or touch theirs. For younger children, make sure to dress them appropriately to avoid contact with their private parts.

Every child lies, and for many children, habitual lying can be an issue. Children lie for various reasons, not just to avoid responsibility or get something that they desire. Children can lie impulsively, to gain the approval of others, to become the center of attention, or to try out a new behavior. Understanding the cause of why children lie is essential to correcting the behavior. In the case of seeking attention, it is better to ignore the conversation than to entertain or question their words. Once you ignore the lie, children understand that you do not believe what they are saying in that moment is true. If they lie to avoid responsibility, point out that there will be consequences. If they lie out of fear, remove the fear and then address the issue.

Talking back is a common habit that children create when they begin to gain a certain sense of independence. Once they begin to feel independent, they get a feeling that they know everything and as a result, they begin to respond aggressively to requests both big and small. As the authority figure, your reaction will determine the outcome. To prevent your child from talking back, remain calm and maintain a normal speaking level. Do not raise your voice as soon as your child talks back, but move the conversation forward in a gentle tone. Ask your child why he or she is being irritated and remind them that everything is fine. In some cases, it is best to remain silent for some time until the child realizes her mistake.

Mom Junction
C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, University of Michigan Health

Back to Archive