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Worrisome Habits

What's the best way to respond to tension-reducing habits such as nail-biting, thumb-sucking, and hair-twirling?

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Q: Lately, I have received many questions about worrisome "habits" of 4 to 6 year olds. One parent asked about a child who has begun to bite his nails and wanted to know how she could "nip this bad habit in the bud."

A grandmother of an almost-6 year old asked for a method of stopping her granddaughter from thumb sucking. The little girl's habit appears only at night while she's holding her special blanket. Other parents are worried about habits such as sniffing, fidgeting, or crossing and uncrossing fingers.

A: All of these habits and more — including hair-twisting or twirling, and leg swinging — are extremely common among young children. They are tension reducers: Yes, young children are often tense from the normal stresses of growing up. So in and of themselves the habits do not suggest serious trouble. What is more, such habits typically wane when children find other ways of reducing stress.

A: All of these habits and more — including hair-twisting or twirling, and leg swinging — are extremely common among young children. They are tension reducers: Yes, young children are often tense from the normal stresses of growing up. So in and of themselves the habits do not suggest serious trouble. What is more, such habits typically wane when children find other ways of reducing stress.

Habits like thumb sucking can be very comforting, especially when the child is giving up the safe world of daytime for sleep. Children also find ways to comfort themselves when there are changes in their lives, such as a new baby in the house, a move to a new home, a parent being away on business or pleasure, or a new phase of school. I advise parents and grandparents to ask themselves whether the habits are more than annoying to them, or if they are interfering with the child's living a full life. Does the child enjoy friends, school, and outside activities, or does pursuit of the habit take precedence? How long has the habit been there? Is it a response to a change in the child's environment? Are there increasing demands for compliant behavior in school or daycare?

"Annoying" habits often represent a way of coping with angry feelings about having to comply. Parents would be well advised to ignore the habits that are merely annoying and not impose their own will on the child. In fact, seize every opportunity to offer choices about simple everyday matters — whether to wear a blue or green shirt, sneakers or sandals; whether to eat pancakes or waffles; and so on. Let your child pick the games you will play, decide what book you will read aloud, and choose the video or CD-ROM game you'll enjoy together. Save your firm stands for matters of safety and well-being. That's a good way to reduce tension within your growing child and between the two of you.

About the Author

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.

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