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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Farewell to Thumb-sucking (and Other Old Habits)

By Denise Morrison Yearian

Children, like adults, are creatures of habit who take comfort in the familiar—for better or for worse. Although most children’s bad habits are developmentally related and disappear over time, behaviors that persist, are injurious, or intensify may need to be addressed. Following are 12 tips for helping kids break bad habits and move on.

1. Understand the source. Some children engage in habits for comfort or to help them cope with stress, fear, or anxiety. Others do it out of boredom or to get attention. For still others, it’s a need from infancy that lingers on. Look at the circumstances surrounding the occurrence of the bad behavior, and identify what is causing your children to act in a negative way. What are they getting out of the behavior? Once a pattern has been identified, formulate steps to help decrease the need for the behavior and find a more acceptable action to replace the bad habit.

2. Wait it out. If the habit is not an injurious behavior or hasn’t intensified, consider taking a wait-and-see approach; focusing on the behavior may exacerbate the problem and potentially lead to a power struggle.

3. Take on teachable times. Look for teachable moments to talk with your child about his or her habit. Choose a time when the atmosphere is calm and you aren’t in the midst of the problem. Avoid lecturing, scolding, or ridiculing as this could cause the behavior to escalate.

4. Stay positive and state specifics. When discussing it, state clearly and positively the behaviors you want to see. Instead of saying, “Don’t forget your homework again,” say, “Remember to do your math and science homework tonight.” When you see desired behaviors offer praise. This increases your child’s awareness of the habit in a non-overt way and serves as a reminder of what he or she should be doing.

5. Be consistent. Sometimes parents enable behaviors to persist by saying one thing and doing another. If, for example, you tell your children not to interrupt while you are talking with others but let them slip in a quick, “Can I just go to…?” statement and give an answer, this reinforces the undesirable behavior. Remember breaking old habits takes time, repetition, and support from parents. New habits must be established before old ones can disappear.

6. Deliver distractions. For example, give children who suck their thumbs something else to do with their hands—help make cookies, color, or play with clay.

7. Communicate and collaborate. If your children are old enough, get their input and develop solutions together. Or come up with several strategies yourself, then lay them out and ask which ones they would like to try first. This will give them a sense of empowerment.

8. Render rewards. Provide incentives for small steps taken toward breaking a habit. Look for nonmaterial rewards they will enjoy—painting fingernails or playing catch.

9. Reach for resources. Age-appropriate books, videos, and other resources are a way to help your child understand undesirable behaviors in a non-confrontational way. Use them when you aren’t in the heat of the situation.

10. Allow natural consequences. Parents may need to wait until their children are interested in changing their behavior. Sometimes kids need to feel the consequences of their actions before they are ready to change.

11. Set an example. Children often follow their parent’s lead. Role model and teach desired habits.

12. Determine the danger. If the behavior is dangerous to your child or others, is affecting her or his relationships, or is getting in the way of healthy development, talk with your pediatrician or other professional. 

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.