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How to Help Children with a Bad Habit

Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Old habits are hard to break. Any adult who has struggled with one knows how true this is. Children can develop a bad habit as well. These can include: biting fingernails, picking noses, chewing sleeves or collars, picking scabs, sucking thumbs or fingers, chewing on the end of ponytails, chewing pencils, knotting hair, etc. If you notice any of these habits forming in your children, there are some things you can do to minimize, redirect, or eliminate them. Here are some tips:

The habit may be out of boredom or an attempt at self-soothing

Help your child identify the things that are interesting and/or relaxing to him. Encourage your child to engage in such activities a few times a day. Talk to your child about any underlying anxieties or fears that he may have. Try to anticipate the triggers for the habit and provide calming alternatives.

Please note: If your child’s “nervous habit” is part of a larger picture of anxiety that is interfering with everyday functioning or if your child struggles with separation anxiety, phobias or generalized anxiety, seek out help from a trusted counselor or your child’s pediatrician.

Don’t focus on the habit

Focusing negative attention on the bad habit will actually make it worse. While you may think that providing consequences for the behavior will help eliminate it, you may be exacerbating the problem. During a time when the child is not exhibiting the behavior, tell your child that you have noticed a new habit. Identify the behavior and the potential problems (physical or social) that it can cause. Problem solve with your child about ways to manage it. Emphasize that you are both on the same team – a team whose goal it is to beat the habit.

Provide rewards

Normally, I do not promote the use of “bribes” when working with children. This is because I feel that an internal locus of control (where you do things because you are internally motivated to do so) rather than an external locus of control (where you only do things because of the rewards you will get – either emotionally or tangibly) is preferable. However, skill development and habits are qualitatively different from, let’s say, hitting your little sister. If your daughter tends to bite her nails in bed at night, tell her that you will only put nail polish on her nails after they are long enough to cut. Place a special jar of polish on her nightstand as a reminder and incentive. If your son chews his shirt collars, tell him that if his collars stay dry for 7 days, you will buy him a t-shirt of his favorite sports team.

Replace

Some habits can be eliminated by simply replacing the habit with a behavior that is more socially acceptable. Not all habits are bad. Reading the Bible every day, brushing your teeth after meals, making your bed when you get up, are all examples of good habits. If your child is chewing on his shirt collar, suggest chewing gum for limited periods of time instead. If your daughter knots her hair, encourage her to brush it out with a special brush, purchased for just those times. If your child picks his nose, pass him a tissue to use in private and offer to apply nasal spray to moisten the area.

If these habits are an attempt to self-soothe, help your child find other ways to calm his nervous system. Ideas include, listening to music, physical activity, deep breathing, noticing the 5 senses in his environment, a hug from a loved one, or writing or drawing about his feelings. If your child is a worrier, you can implement some of these tips together.

Keep it in perspective

Many of these habits, even without intervention, will disappear on their own (after all, how many businessmen do you see chewing on collars?). What you want to focus on is giving your child appropriate coping and stress management skills. These skills will be an invaluable resource that she can draw upon as she grows up and must deal with the stressors of everyday life.

And, once again, the best advice of all comes directly from the mouth of God:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:6-9

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers parent counseling services to families in Connecticut. She loves to equip and encourage parents of kids of all ages. CfP is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring teens.

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