Kids' Habits

Kids just don’t view snot or toe lint in the same way we do. They think that stuff is really neat and can’t understand why we don’t think so too.
—Christopher Skinner, Professor of School Psychology at Mississippi State University, Starkville

Habits aren’t inherently good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Most children develop habits such as nail biting to comfort themselves. Few of these behaviors interfere with development. They can, however, be incredibly annoying for parents. This can lead to power struggles and arguments and disagreements between parent and child that can be more troublesome than the behaviors themselves. And as children get older some may develop more risking habits such as tobacco or alcohol use. Most habits, however, eventually stop being effective and fade away. Here are some ideas for how to deal with the small stuff and keep an eye out for the bigger stuff.

Tips for . . .

  • parents with children ages birth to 5
    • Know that for babies and very young children, habits such as thumb- or finger-sucking, body rocking, teeth grinding, and head rolling develop as ways of relaxing or self-soothing. They will likely end in early childhood.
    • To young children who can understand what you are saying, calmly point out what you don’t like about the habit and why. Don’t punish, ridicule, criticize, or become angry with children, as this may only exacerbate the problem.
    • parents with children ages 6 to 9
    • Know that if ignored, most childhood habits, even the most annoying, will end because eventually your children will no longer need them. If you are very frustrated with a particular habit, such as finger sucking, try offering a replacement, such as a special stuffed animal for nighttime comfort.
    • Ask your children if they have ideas about how to break habits that cause them trouble (such as being teased for hair twisting or chronic bloody noses caused by picking).
    • parents with children ages 10 to 15
    • Suggest specific positive alternate behaviors, such as snapping rather than nail biting, that your children can use to help them break habits.
    • Be aware that because your children’s brains are still developing, experimenting with tobacco or other drugs at this age could lead to habits that become difficult addictions to overcome. If you suspect your children or their friends are involved in such behavior, educate yourself about what to say and how to react.
    • parents with children ages 16 to 18
    • Help your teenagers develop good self-care habits—including nutrition, exercise, and hygiene—that they will carry with them into adulthood.
    • Develop family habits that your children will likely carry over into their adult lives—things like an annual household spring cleaning, exercising together, or starting meals with a check-in conversation about how everyone is doing.
  • Know that habits that harm children, such as cutting or other self-injury, are a sign of serious underlying problems. If you have reason to believe a child—yours or anyone’s—is hurting him or herself, seek guidance from a professional such as a doctor or therapist.

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