Help erase your child’s bad habits

You can break your child’s unsightly habit of biting nails or sucking thumbs with a little patience and encouragement.

You don’t need to get anxious if your child sucks their thumb or bites their nails. If you’re not careful, your response could exacerbate the problem. Your child’s habits may be due to your child being anxious, over-excited or just bored. Here are some tips to help you and your child, from Dawn Huebner PhD, a psychologist in Exeter, New Hampshire, and the author of What to Do When Bad Habits Take Hold.

Try not to shame or punish your child, as this could just make the problem worse. Use a gentle approach. You’ll need to be patient, as your child may be trying really hard, but have a setback on a tough day. It can take 21 days of sustained effort to break a habit, so you need to be supportive for a few weeks.

Nail biting can indicate nerves. Although some children start innocently nibbling at a broken nail and chew on from there. If the biting causes soreness, or even infection you might have to consult a doctor. Give your child a stock of emery boards to gently file their nails. You could even file your nails together with your child each night to help get them into the habit. Encourage your child to nibble on healthy snacks, like fruit slices, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, cashews or almonds.

Another frustrating habit is thumb sucking. It is comfortable and also soothing for young children. Most kids grow out of it by three or four years of age. If your toddler looks like they’re going to be a thumb sucker beyond age four, you’ll need to break the habit as they risk longer term dental issues. Consider showing them images of people with crooked teeth and explain how you know they don’t want teeth like that and explain that you are willing to work with them to make sure it doesn’t happen.

You could use a paint-on deterrent, available from your local pharmacy, although some kids are smart enough to wash these off. Give them a squishy ball to squeeze, particularly at the time they usually suck their thumb, for example when they watch TV. Use positive reinforcement, so instead of noting when they are sucking their thumb, let them know you notice when they don’t suck it.