Say bye-bye to bad habits
From nose pickers to nail biters, parents can change their child's unsavoury pratices, writes Deirdre Rooney
There comes a time when even the most adorable child sticks his or her finger up their nose, and examines the find. It may be an unpleasant sight but it is a perfectly normal curiosity in every youngster's early developmental stages. But when this process is repeated day in and day out, over and over again, it may form a habit. And a bad one at that.
Young children and bad habits go hand in hand. Be it nose picking, thumb sucking, hair twirling or nail biting, there are many ways in which children behave that can be irritating to adults. To know how to break these habits, we must first understand why they do it, and just why they take hold.
Dr Dawn Huebner, clinical psychologist and author of What to Do When Bad Habits Take Hold: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Nail Biting and More, specialises in treating children with anxiety.
"When people talk about 'bad habits' they usually mean dysfunctional repetitive behaviours, behaviours children do automatically that don't serve a useful function," Dr Huebner explains. "These sorts of habits often start inadvertently. An infant waves her tiny fists and one lands in her mouth, she sucks on it, and it feels good. Repeat a few times and - voila! A fist-sucking habit is born".
According to Dr Huebner, bad habits often have a self-soothing component, so children who have trouble regulating their internal state are more likely to pick them up. Intense or hard-to-settle children or those who are anxious might develop body-focused habits as a way to calm themselves when distressed.
"Children often land on these habits because they feel good and are calming," says Dr Huebner. "Then the habit takes on a life of its own, becoming automatic. We see young children picking or sucking or twirling when they are feeling unsure of themselves, but also when they are bored, or sleepy, or excited. The habit becomes a way to settle the nervous system, not just when a child is anxious, but related to spikes of all sorts."
So, what can be done to alter the behaviour? When an adult wants to quit a bad habit, they can apply will power, amongst other aides, to the task. But how can a three-year-old, who would eat cake until they're sick, tackle the same problem?
"Not through will power!" says Dr Huebner. "It is very, very hard to break a habit when the emphasis is on stopping the undesirable behaviour. It is easier to change a habit than to break one."
Young children don't have the capacity to change the habit themselves, so it falls to the parents to help. This is done by providing the child with a satisfying substitute behaviour and also making access more difficult, and trying to heal affected body parts. "Children who pick at their nails, for example, have rough, sore nails and cuticles," says Dr Huebner. "You need to clip and file and use lotion to heal their little fingers because otherwise their attention is constantly drawn to their fingers (because they feel interesting or they hurt), and from there it's easy to just pop those fingers back into their mouths to nibble. So, the goal is to think about ways to block the habit (make it harder to do automatically), heal the body part (if necessary), and provide a substitute."
The longer a child has been displaying a habit, the harder it is to move away from, because the behaviours get hard-wired. Dr Colman Noctor, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at St Patrick's Mental Health Services, and Assistant Professor in TCD, is the author of Cop On: A Parenting Book for the Technological Era, and he says that bad habits form because they are easy.
"Unfortunately, bad habits seem to catch on far more quickly than good ones. I am at pains to teach my own children to say 'please' and 'thank you' all the time, and it's proving a long and slow process to catch on without prompting," Dr Noctor says. "However, when my daughter started to bed swap at night time, her two brothers seemed to follow suit with remarkable ease. But perhaps it's just bad habits are easy, quick fixes, and good habits take effort and endurance. It's human nature that even as adults we too are guilty of opting for what is quick rather than what is right."
Dr Noctor has a special interest in the effects of contemporary media on child development and mental health. So, are more young children presenting with bad habits in relation to screen use?
"I think parents are perhaps falling into bad habits in this regard," says Dr Noctor. "The notion of the digital soother is a contemporary issue where the bright colours and animation of the digital device are used to distract or entertain the noisy infant. This sensory stimulation may be too much for the cognitive ability of the child to absorb, but we don't know. So in essence, this is an experiment. Devices are undoubtedly effective in muting children's raucous behaviour, but the possible side effects are as yet unknown. The use of the white noise app on the tablet to get infants to sleep is a common issue, but like rocking a child to sleep this can foster dependency which can be hard to wean off from."
Dr Noctor also points out that a parent's own frequent use of screens may be inhibiting a child's learning capacity in relation to foundational experiences like facial recognition and social cues. "You may never have put a screen in your child's hand, but if your device is never out of your hand, then this too inhibits the time available for good interactive activity," he says.
If a parent decides to let a bad habit go unchecked, perhaps to keep the peace or simply because they can easily tolerate nail-biting or little pickers, are there any longer-term implications on the child who continues with a bad habit?
"Some habits result in harm to the body, like teeth being pushed out of alignment from thumb sucking," says Dr Huebner. "Once children reach school-age, if they continue performing their habits in public, they might be subject to ridicule and shame.
"But children who are forced to break a habit without anyone tending to their need for comfort, their difficulty self-soothing might develop other, more harmful habits. Some argue that overeating relates in part to attempts to self-soothe with food. Habits do serve a purpose and we need to understand that purpose and help children to get their needs met in other ways."
Common childhood habits and how to tackle them
NOSE PICKING: Make sure the interior of the nose doesn’t invite exploring by having your child blow their nose regularly (to discharge gunk), and by lightly lining their nose with coconut or other mild oil (check with their doctor first). Teach your child to blow his nose and reinforce doing this. Have your child wash his hands every time you see him pick, this acts as a mild disincentive.
THUMB SUCKING: Introduce sucking substitutes. It’s easier to wean a child from a pacifier or chew toy than from their thumb. Thumb suckers often have a ritual involving a special blanket or something. Limit these objects to bedrooms or downtime, to shape the behaviour. For older children (ages 3+), you can direct them to the couch or their room for sucking.
NAIL BITING: Try to keep the nails and skin as smooth as possible — clip rough edges, file, apply lotion — so attention isn’t drawn to them. Cover nails with plasters during ‘danger’ times, e.g. riding in the car, watching TV, times children are sitting still and might be inclined to nibble. Some children (ages 4+) benefit from nail polish, reminding them not to nibble. Also, the polish gives them something other than their nails to pick at. I usually recommend against bad-tasting polish — it’s punitive and it doesn’t work.
HAIR TWIRLING/SUCKING: This is a tricky habit because it seems innocuous but can lead to hair pulling, which is a very hard habit to break. Hair twirling/sucking is best dealt with by making access difficult, either with short hair cuts, or snug-fitting caps. Give your young child something not attached to their body to twirl or suck.
GENITAL TOUCHING: We want children to explore and find pleasure in their bodies, but self-stimulating can become a repetitive and problematic habit used to help children regulate their internal state when they are feeling bored, tired or agitated. At the early stages, you can narrate what your child is doing, “That feels nice, doesn’t it”, and then add “Your penis (or vagina) is private though. It’s only for touching when you are alone.” Help children learn that the bathroom and their bedroom are the places for playing with genitals. With young children, try to re-direct. It isn’t about simply stopping a child. You need to provide them with something else to do that soothes them, or feels good to them, but not involving their genitals.