How to break a bad habit in children

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Thumbsucking? Nail biting? These are tough habits to break. How can you get a child to give up a bad habit? Answers on how to break a bad habit from Good Morning America Parenting Contributor Ann Pleshette Murphy.

How to break a bad habit in children

Thumb sucking is natural

  • All babies have a sucking instinct.
  • It’s not about food, it’s about comfort: it releases many different chemicals in the brain.

Ways to stop thumb sucking

  • Don't use those awful-tasting polishes.
  • Thumb sucking can be a lot harder to deal with than pacifiers.
  • Pacifiers can help but then you sometimes have to break that habit.
  • To break a pacifier habit you can gradually snip pieces off the end until there's nothing left of it, limit its use to a few times a day and gradually phase it out, or have a pacifier "purge" with a group of toddlers all throwing away their pacifiers at once.

Stopping bad habits in children

  • If a bad habit seems to be getting in the way of your child's normal, everyday activities, it could be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, so check with your pediatrician.
  • Often older kids will stop thumb sucking or nail biting because their friends ridicule them.
  • Do some detective work to try and determine when they engage in the habit.
  • Try to give your child something to do with his or her hands, like play with Silly Putty or another tactile toy, when they would normally be thumb sucking or nail biting.
Transcript DENISE: Does your child suck his or her thumb? Hi there, I'm Denise Richardson from howdini.com. We’re talking about that right now so pay attention. We have a great guest, Ann Pleshette Murphy, who is the author of Seven Stages of Motherhood and is a parenting contributor to Good Morning America. Every child for the most part sucks their thumb.

ANN: Or it sucks on something. Sucking is actually an instinct and a need that’s separate from feeding and a lot people think they suck because they’re hungry. No, it’s actually a separate need, of course, it’s something that’s very soothing. They release all kinds of brain chemicals when they’re sucking and so it’s not something that’s necessarily a bad thing, except that, of course, you know it’s very hard to break the habit.

DENISE: So, as soon as the thumb goes into the mouth, do you replace it with a pacifier?

ANN: Well, you can’t. We can actually see fetuses sucking their thumbs in utero, so it’s something that some kids do and some kids don’t. The ones who don’t, again parents find that a pacifier is a wonderful soother, the trouble is, you then have to have a big supply of them. But, it’s much to break a child of a pacifier than the thumb because my recommendation for getting rid of the pacifier is that at a certain point you can restrict the pacifier to certain times of day, you know, when they’re going to take a nap or when they’re going to go to bed. You can also do something that sometimes works is to snip a little bit of the pacifier off every few days so at a certain point, there’s nothing to suck on. That has sometimes worked for friends of mine that I know whose kids were addicted to their pacifiers. You can also have a rich, a big pacifier purge, you know, where you get a lot of other kids who use pacifiers and they all throw their pacifiers in the garbage together. That sometimes works, but you can’t do that with their thumbs.

DENISE: So, we all say, bad habit, how do you change a bad habit? How long does it take or does it depend on the individual?

ANN: Well, it depends on the individual. But, I wanted to start by saying that if the habit is part of a whole ritual of behavior or if it seems to be interfering with the child’s life in some way…they can’t socialize, they do it in really kind of an obsessive way, then I would talk to your pediatrician because it may be part of what we call obsessive-compulsive disorder, there’s some habits that seem to be associated with that. But, if you’ve got a nail-biter or if you’ve got a thumbsucker, chances are that their peers are going to shame them out of the habit. A girl who suddenly has a boy go “Ugh, you’re nails look disgusting,” is never going to bite them again. Um, that may not be until she’s ten, eleven, twelve, but that is often what happens.

DENISE: But the parent may say, well I’m really hoping that it’s friends that tease them out of that stage, but maybe they won’t.

ANN: Yeah, maybe they won’t, and you don’t really want your kids to be shamed into something, you hope that you can deal with it sooner. And one of the ways of dealing with it is, again, to do some detective work and see when they tend to do it. When kids are tired, when kids are watching television, or when they’re, you know, bored, or whenever they tend to, that’s when the thumb goes in the mouth, or you know, when they’re feeling anxious. So, then you can help a child who’s old enough to have the habit be broken. So let’s say the kid’s six, seven, eight years old, you can say I’ve noticed that when you’re watching TV you often pull your hair or you bite your nails, so I want you to really be aware of that. And you can give kids fidget-busters, or nail-biting busters by giving them something to play with so that when they’re bored or distracted and that’s when they tend to put their thumb in their mouth, give them silly putty or you know, give them something tactile that they can hold in their hands so that they’re not putting their hands in their mouth.

DENISE: And, bottom line: don’t beat up on your kid for that.

ANN: Yeah, and certainly these things with painting their thumbs with something that tastes disgusting is really not a good idea. I mean there used to be these kind of Draconian measures parents would take to quit, you know, to rid their kid of bad habits. Those are not a good idea.

DENISE: Thank you so much. Good information.

ANN: Thanks.
meet theexpert
  • Ann Pleshette

    Ann Pleshette Parenting Contributor, Good Morning America, ABC Ann Pleshette Murphy has been the Parenting Contributor for Good Morning America since November 1998, and her “American Family” segments are a recurring feature on GMA. Murphy is the author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind (Anchor Books) and travels the country speaking to mothers’ groups about such themes as striking a balance between work and family, wrestling with guilt and setting loving limits. She was Editor-in-Chief of Parents magazine from 19 more about this expert »

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