| Print Story | E-Mail Story | Font Size

Help your child break those bad habits that drive you nuts

Calmly point out what you don't like about the habit and why.

additional tips

• When you notice that your child has not been indulging in the bad habit for a while, reward him. "Catch them being good," and say that you noticed, Taylor recommends.

• Help the child self-monitor. "You can say, 'Oh, I am noticing you are doing this, so it's time to get your mittens.'"

• Make a behavior or star chart and give the child a sticker when she doesn't engage in the bad habit or stops doing it. When the child has 10 stickers, give her a little reward.

• Calmly point out what you don't like about the habit and explain why. This approach, suggested by kidshealth.org, can be used with children as young as 3 or 4 years old to help increase their awareness of the habit. Say something like, "I don't like it when you bite your nails. It doesn't look nice. Could you try to stop doing that?"

• Use over-the-counter products such as bitter-tasting compounds, which can be placed on the fingers or cuticles to remind the child when he begins to bite nails or suck on a thumb. Done alone, this isn't hugely successful, but it's worth a try, Taylor said.

Thumb-sucking. Hair twirling. Nail biting. Cuticle picking. Nose picking. What child doesn’t have a bad habit that drives parents crazy?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the causes of annoying habits like these are unknown, but their repetitive nature suggests that their purpose is to soothe or calm.

In many cases, as children mature and develop greater self-control over their behavior, bad habits will stop, most often by age 8, the academy says.

For the most part, people act on habits with little awareness or consciousness, said Dr. Mery Taylor, a child and adolescent psychologist at CHOC Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Bad habits might not seem serious but nail biting and cuticle picking can lead to ugly nails or bleeding cuticles, and excessive hair twirling can lead to hair loss, Taylor said.

Before accepting that your child will endure a lifetime of baldness and bad manicures, know that even the worst habits can be corrected.

First off, punishment usually doesn’t work, Taylor said. “It’s a behavior that they really can’t help.”

Taylor suggests that parents try to figure out when the child is engaging in the bad habit and possible triggers. Does the negative behavior happen during homework time? Is it when the child has free time? Does the behavior occur when the child is stressed? Is the child restless and needing something to do with his hands?

“Keep a little notebook. Then prepare a game plan. Do this for a week. Let it go and see what comes up,” said Taylor.

If the child is chewing on her hair or biting her nails during stressful times, ask what is bothering her, Taylor said. Have the child perform relaxation techniques like deep breathing before he starts homework, or engage the child in positive self-talk. Have the child repeat, “I can do this!” Let him take a short break during homework time to help maintain calm. If the child starts biting her nails in the car, offer a toy or a stress ball to act as a distraction and keep little hands busy, she said.

If the child engages in the bad behavior while relaxing or watching television, offer Play-Doh or Legos to play with or have him put on special mittens until the urge passes.

See archived 'Coast Kids' stories »

What is this?

Save & Share this Article