Thursday, October 20, 2016


I get a lot of calls about habits.  Nail biting and  thumb sucking are probably the two most common, but you can’t begin to imagine what some kids come up with. Are you ready to tackle your child’s habit? Here is a truth - nagging doesn’t work. In fact, giving a lot of negative attention to a habit might even make it worse.

The most effective way to address a habit is to work on it as a team, which means that your child has to be involved and motivated to make a change. Maneuvering so that you can even have this discussion with your child taking an active role at problem solving and brainstorming  is easier said than done. You need to find the magic opportunity.

I like to share the “supermarket analogy” for this. Many of the parents who have picked my brain about parenting issues have heard this one before. Imagine your child is the checkout clerk at a supermarket. You are putting the items on the conveyor belt and they are systematically scanning them. But then… aren’t sure quite what, but something you placed on the conveyor triggered something, and the clerk decided to just close the line mid transaction. It doesn’t matter that you are not finished, you haven’t payed, and that you have ice cream melting  in the cart. There will be no more shopping at this moment.

In spite of this, many of us still stand there, putting more and more items on the belt. We are wasting our time of course. This lane is closed.There will be no transaction completed right now.
Whenever you want to have a conversation that has an agenda or a teaching moment, you need to find the right moment. Make sure the “line is open”. You might need to use the express lane (or pick one short topic.) If this is a pattern, try to figure out if you recognize what triggers the line to abruptly close and approach that subject delicately.

It is tricky, but it can be done. When is your child most likely open for a ‘transaction’?  Maybe broach the subject when you are in the car, taking a walk, or sitting on the side of the bed during bed time. One-on-one time is usually best if you can manage to carve some out of your schedule. Allow your child to be involved in the choice to invite other family members or wise friends to the brainstorming.

Before you even start the 'habit discussion' consider reading a general book about habits. Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit,  is a good one.

In this classic, Mama Bear explains what a habit is by comparing it to her pushing the wheelbarrow back and forth between the shed and the garden, Over time the wheels have made a deep rut. It is easy enough to wheel the barrow on that well worn track. It would take some effort to push it in any other way. As Mama and Sister walk along to the garden, they talk about the habit in question. Sister Bear nibbles her nails. They brainstorm together about a solution. Reading a book or telling a story about habits is a great launching point for the discussion.
Identify the habit that you want to address. Point out other folks you know with different habits so your child doesn’t feel singled out.

What are some of the consequences of the habit? Downsides of nail biting or thumb sucking could include broken and irritated skin, germs, teasing from other children...

We don’t want to end up with Lady Macbeth on our hands by scaring kids about germs too much. Find a middle ground. There are indeed germs in the environment. More and more studies show that having children exposed to a certain amount of germs is actually healthy (bring on the dog kisses.) One way to bring this up with your kids might be, “when we are healthy our body has germ fighters inside. Dirty hands in the mouth might add so many extra germs that our body can’t keep up." (Or you can really freak them out and teach them about pin worms)

What is the benefit of breaking the habit? Pretty nails, no broken skin, no teasing, less risk of germs.

What is a good reward to work towards if they succeed? A special outing or a coveted toy perhaps.

What are some ideas that you might come up with to help break the habit?

In the Berenstain Bear book, they start the day giving Sister Bear 10 pennies that she will need to give back through the day every time she is caught nibbling. Sometimes the act of having to give something back is indeed  more effective than the promise of earning it.

There are some products you can apply to make the fingers take nasty, but I only like to use those when the child has agreed that they are motivated to stop the hand to mouth habit. A jingly bracelet might serve as a reminder. Having lots of healthy crunchy snacks available to chomp on can help too. A sticker chart might be useful to show progress. When you first start out, small goals might be easier to attain. Maybe a sticker can be earned every hour that they succeed in remembering to keep their hands out of their mouth (or whatever the habit is that you are working on.) See if you can think of a good habit that they can substitute.

Make an agreement about how your child would like you to be their cheerleader. Do they want you to verbally remind you?  They might be relieved to have the power to take that off the table. How about a finger snap,a quick whistle or a tap on your nose if you see them doing the habit?

Not all habits are bad ones of course.
I just got a fitbit, so I am trying to start the good habit of walking more. If you see me walking aimlessly back and forth in the office, I am trying to get my steps in!

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