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What to do when self-soothing behaviours become a problem

child sucking thumb and holding ear

Buddha is given credit for saying ‘‘the deed develops into habit and the habit hardens into character…’’  This reflection became clear to me one evening as I cuddled in bed with my young son. He was sound asleep and I was propped up reading. In disbelief I noticed him nibbling on his fingernails. Here was a two-year-old with such an ingrained behaviour that it was surfacing in his subconscious. Clearly, it was time to cure our little guy of his bad habit; especially considering his dad still gnaws at his nails. Before I pointed any accusing fingers I decided to investigate the spectrum of habitual behaviour and the connection to biology, imitation, environment and emotion.

There is certainly no shortage of socially “unacceptable” bodily behaviours, such as:

  • biting (nails, lips, cheeks and pencils)
  • picking (skin and nose)
  • pulling (hair, eyebrows and lashes)
  • sucking (thumbs and various objects)
  • grinding teeth
  • cracking knuckles
  • twirling hair
  • rocking, hitting and head banging.

There is also no scarcity of children that have at least one habitual affliction. And, the more we engage in habitual behaviour, the more we deepen the neural pathways, embedding undesirable conduct into our everyday lives; maybe even for a lifetime. That bad behaviour can fester into a habit that will become unsightly or even unsanitary.

Fortunately, many habits, especially those that the younger infant or child performs to self-soothe, diminish with time and self-awareness.

Consider this…when was the last time you saw an adult sucking their thumb or rocking themself to sleep? Often a child simply outgrows the habit and little or no intervention is needed. On the other hand, have a look around on your evening commute, at the next meeting or maybe even in the mirror and notice how many adults masticate their nails, twist their hair or chew the inside of their cheeks (which happens to be my personal habitual monkey). Then it may dawn on you that certain habits are readily woven into our nature and the earlier we call a halt to compulsion, the less likely it will become part of our youngster’s character.

How to Kick It

Start by observing your child’s habit. It is often assumed that some habits, such as nail biting and hair pulling, have genetic connections, but there is no definitive evidence; ultimately, each case is individual. Your children may be mimicking a habit but they will have their own, usually more primal, reasoning behind the behaviour. That being said, simple imitation is an undeniable factor and a cure depends on adults setting appropriate examples.

Is your child engaging in the habit when tired or bored, anxious or hungry? Habits can be linked to a regular activity; how often have you heard friends talk about smoking only when they’re at a party? In kids, you might see hair twirling or pencil biting while doing homework or during computer time. A particularly stressful event in a child’s life can bring about a habit; divorce, death or illness of a loved one and various school-related woes are likely triggers. Our son turns to his nails during what I refer to as “empty time”, such as watching TV and when immobile in his car seat.

“Habits can be learned behaviour,” says Dr. Jim Eliuk, a registered psychologist with the University of Alberta. “They can sometimes arise as ways of managing underlying energy (as is seen with people who are anxious and end up biting their nails); they can sometimes represent ways of keeping ourselves busy when otherwise bored; and they can represent strategies that we develop at an early age to help deal with stressful or misunderstood situations and dynamics. It is not unusual for the initial source of a habit to become lost in one’s past. Often, however, it is possible to help an individual go back in their mind and through memories to the time when a behaviour or habit arose.”

Once we recognize what triggers the habit, we can redirect the routine reaction the child has created for themselves. If your child is old enough to have a conversation, discuss their habit in an open, non-critical manner. We can explain what we have observed, why we would like to help them change their habit and encourage their contributions. Their suggestions for change can be the key to successfully conquering their habit.

But of course, it’s not quite so easy. They have to be willing to give up the habit. If your young one is adamantly unwilling to alter a habit, stay reasonable and regular until there is some consent. Any parent knows the determination of a three-year-old is exponential to the power of 35 years and the ensuing combat would be fruitless!

What Works For You

Approaches to healing an unhealthy habit are as varied as the habits themselves so each family needs to find a system that is manageable at all times, by all members. The basic concept is to replace a bad habit with a good habit, known as a “proxy” object. It may sound counteractive but it is a fabulous life skill that has the potential to help other members of your family at the same time.

Dr. Eliuk has practised psychology with children, adolescents and adults, and has had success using this method: “Symptom substitution (proxy habit) is a well-accepted way of replacing an annoying or dangerous habit for a less dysfunctional behaviour. I recall working with one individual, using hypnosis, to replace the habit he quickly developed of using his tongue to play with a rough-edged tooth from which he had lost a filling (and the tongue was very quickly getting raw) to have him twirl a small pencil stub instead.”

It all starts with the family but we can consider including friends and extended family, even teachers and caregivers, since their input and involvement can be helpful. Our sister-in-law had an interesting perspective. As a former dental receptionist, she witnessed many times that a quick chat with the dentist was enough to influence a child to curb a grinding or sucking fixation.

Finally, be full of positive reinforcement, consistency and motivation. Generous praise will also go a long way in helping your youngster feel more empowered to change.  Habits can be present for many years of a child’s life and you hardly want to spend that time nagging at them and shooing away little fingers that are eagerly exploring crusty nostrils.

Many children, teens and adults need a coping or soothing mechanism for times where preoccupation is overwhelming; it is clearly innate in many of us, but as Buddha would warn…choose the deed wisely. Akin to instilling good manners, work ethic, respect and confidence, building good habits and deconstructing bad ones takes patience, love and unwavering regularity. A bad habit can be an opportunity to shift a character fault into a lifelong advantage and the progression may leave a positive, lasting impression for generations to come.

Diana Daunheimer is a freelance writer based in Alberta whose bad habits are a work in progress. Originally published in May 2011. Photo by iStockphoto. 

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