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How do I help my child stop a bad habit?

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From thumb sucking to nose picking, childhood often involves habits that may be thought of as “bad.” But even good children have so-called bad habits and they typically are used by children as coping strategies to help soothe such emotions and feelings as stress, boredom, insecurity, frustration, or unhappiness. The good news is that most of these behaviors are just phases—not serious medical or psychological conditions—and most children soon outgrow them.

Here’s a look at two of the most common behaviors thought of as bad habits and how to help your child successfully end them.

Thumb sucking and overuse of pacifiers

As any new parent or caregiver knows, thumb and finger sucking are a very normal thing that children do in the first few months of their life. Sucking helps soothe a child, keeping them calm and actually helps them get to sleep. In addition to the thumbs and fingers, young children also enjoy sucking on pacifiers and blankets. Many babies tend to outgrow these sucking habits before their first birthday, and most kids stop the practice by age 5.

Although it’s harmless early in life, thumb and finger sucking can become concerning when a child’s permanent teeth start to come in around the age of 5. Because thumb and finger sucking can actually alter the shape of a child’s teeth, palate, or bite, a pacifier is a much better option. But even then, children should, ideally, stop using a pacifier by age 4.

One way to help a child stop using a pacifier is to cut slits in the mouthpiece of the pacifier. Doing so makes sucking less effective and children will soon lose interest in it. You can also help a child gradually stop using their pacifier by encouraging them to leave the pacifier in the bedroom in the morning and only letting them use it at bedtime or naptime.

Nose picking

For parents and caregivers, nose-picking can be one of the most annoying and frowned upon habits that many children have. But don’t feel alone as this habit is probably the most common bad habit that young children have. Children typically begin picking their nose due to bothersome conditions like infection, allergies, or minor trauma that can result in uncomfortable crusting. With nose-picking, the child is simply trying to relieve the discomfort and pick out the problem.

Parents and caregivers should gently tell a child that nose-picking is not an acceptable habit in public. Instead, teach the child to use a tissue to clear out his or her nose and take care of any itchiness or irritation. Also, explain to the child that germs can be spread when they pick their nose.

One way to help a child stop picking their nose is to use a little bit of petroleum jelly inside their nose to ease any irritation. A saline spray can also help moisten little noses to avoid any picking. But be sure to check with your child’s primary care doctor for any other tips on relieving a child’s irritated nose. 

Other ways to help break bad habits

Beyond nose picking and thumb sucking, there are many other bad habits that children engage in, including body, rocking, nail-biting, hair twirling, and even holding their breath. For parents and caregivers, it can often be frustrating to see their child exhibit these sorts of behavior. In general, it’s best to ignore these kinds of habits. If a parent or caregiver yells, punishes, or calls extra attention to the habit, the behavior typically does not end and may even be increased. But here are other ways to help a child break a bad habit:

  • Instead of concentrating on the bad, make sure to praise the good habits of your child. For example, point out to a child that you noticed they had gone all day without sucking their thumb. This type of positive reinforcement does wonders in helping a child change their behavior.
  • Listen to your child and try to figure out what is stressing them in the first place. By actively listening to your child, you can help make them feel more secure and less inclined to rely on habits like thumb sucking as a source of security.


To learn more about other typical “bad habits” in childhood and how to help your child end them, visit

By ABC Quality Team on September 8, 2020