If you watch little kids, you’ll see all sorts of bad habits. There’s nail biting, hair chewing, thumb sucking and perhaps the most ubiquitous (and disgusting) habit of all—nose picking.
You want your kids to stop, but they don’t. It’s enough to drive you crazy some days and you wonder if they will ever outgrow it.
Julie Foster’s son, Brendan, 3, started picking his nose last summer. At first, Foster and her husband told him it was gross, but when he saw their amused irritation, he only giggled and stuck a second finger in the other nostril.
"He thinks it’s a joke," says Foster.
It’s a common problem with kids, but why do they develop these habits and more importantly, is there anything you can do to stop them?
Why habits start
While it’s frustrating and a bit disgusting to see your daughter chewing her hair, you probably have a few bad habits you’d like to kick yourself. Nail biting? Smoking? Emotional eating?
Habits are universal. They only become bad when the habit is considered unsanitary or damaging. One person might not bat an eyelash at nail biting while another feels her stomach turn at the sight. Your daughter’s hair chewing might lead to split ends or damaged hair.
But each habit offers something to a child that they aren’t getting elsewhere.
Is your daughter bored while she watches TV, which leads to hair chewing? Is your son anxious about something and bites his nails?
"Habits are offshoots of normal behaviors," says Dr. Helen Minciotti, mother of five and pediatrician on staff at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. "Habits offer comfort during downtime or stress."
Ultrasounds have shown fetuses sucking their thumbs, proof that these habits start early. In fact, parents have little control over whether or not their children begin bad habits because it can be biologically based.
"Some individuals are more oral. They like the sensory feeling that comes with some of these bad habits," says Nancy Gardner, a therapist for the Center for Contextual Change with offices in Skokie, Elmhurst and Chicago.
Combating the habits
Foster admits she and her husband initially thought their son’s nose picking habit was funny. But once Brendan began seeing it as a joke, they realized it might be best just to ignore it.
"We try not to make a big deal out of it now and just hand him a tissue," she says.
Just like tantrums or silly behavior, kids want others to notice them, even if their behavior isn’t drumming up positive support from adults. It is simply enough to be recognized.
"Don’t provide your child with extra attention," Gardner says. "Kids love attention and any you give them in relation to a bad habit is extremely reinforcing."
It is also important not to make your child feel as if he is bad for having the habit. Chances are he didn’t consciously choose to begin and once a habit is ingrained, it can be difficult to stop. This is particularly true for children under age of 4 or 5. Unable to practice self control, preschoolers have a tougher time kicking a bad habit.
Punishment should never be used to break a bad habit.
"Parents can run into trouble if they spend time chastising their child," says Minciotti, who also practices at Woodfield Pediatrics in Schaumburg. "It makes life unpleasant. Kids don’t respond well to being nagged."
So what can you do to help your child overcome a bad habit?
Try explaining basic concepts like hygiene. Once children are old enough to understand how germs spread, a simple reminder that germs lurk under the fingernails might be enough to give her pause before she puts them in her mouth.
"Older kids respond really well to hygiene issues," Gardner says. "By grade school they hear about hygiene from other sources than their parents, like teachers and friends."
Try a rewards chart for a noticeable habit like nail biting. Children not only observe the results on the chart, but see the changes in their own body.
Diversion also works wonders. Keep track of when your child performs his bad habit. Does he gnaw on his nails only when he watches TV?
Once you know what triggers your child’s inner anxiety or boredom, try to redirect. Watching TV doesn’t have to be passive. Engage your son with a puzzle or LEGOS to keep his fingers moving while he watches the new episode of "Avatar."
As children enter elementary school, a new factor comes into play: peer pressure. Most kids don’t want to be seen biting their nails or picking their nose around their friends. Judgment is quickly passed among children and that alone may give your daughter enough motivation to quit.
When to see a doctor
If you notice evidence of nose bleeds or infections on the fingers, don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician for solutions. Children who are causing significant damage to their bodies need to be evaluated.
Sometimes habits can be an indicator of a greater problem.
"When patterns develop side by side such as changes in sleeping, behavior, friendships or eating, parents may want to seek out additional help," Gardner says.
Sometimes, though, as we all know, bad habits are just that. Everyone has at least one they would like to ditch. Good old willpower can solve the worst of habits with time and determination.
"There are times when nothing works well," Minciotti says. "It’s just something they have to decide not to do."
Habit specific remedies
General talks about hygiene and rewards charts aren’t working for your child? Try a targeted approach to each bad habit.
Cut long hair short so it can’t reach the mouth, or keep long hair back in a ponytail during the times your daughter is mostly like to chew such as TV watching or at school.
Nail biting, girls
Reward your daughter with a manicure (doing it at home together is just as fun as going to a spa) if she stops nail biting, offer to buy new nail polish, or focus on an upcoming event such as a recital as a goal for growing out nails.
Nail biting, boys
Encourage him to wear gloves at home to help wear down the urgency of nail biting and keep his hands busy with other activities.
Put a bandage on the offending hangnail. Let your child choose fun bandages that he’ll be proud to wear.
School-aged children who continue to suck their thumb might benefit from wearing a puppet or glove on their hand at bedtime.
You can’t cover the nose or put anything on the fingers that might get stuck in the nostrils so keep tissues in your child’s pockets at all times and keep your fingers crossed.
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook, who admits to occasionally biting her nails. Visit her on the Web at www.michellesussman.com.