How to help your child reduce harmful habits
by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
Habits start out as a reaction to an itch, a bump or stuffy nose. The behavior continues because it leads to comfort. Occasionally, these behaviors are related to anxiety or emotional discomfort. Bad habits can be disfiguring or put the child at risk of infection (such as severe nail biting and skin picking). And there are other negative effects (shirt chewing costs money!).
There are ways of reducing bad habits. Analysis of the behavior patterns and conditions associated with the habit can help with designing a reduction plan. However, motivation and replacement behaviors are also part of the picture. Dawn Huebner has published an excellent workbook called What to do When Bad Habits Take Hold. In it, she reviews a host of great replacement behaviors for various bad habits.
First, take stock of the size of the problem. Children should be allowed to have some quirks and habits. Occasional nail biting, hair twirling, or even discrete nose picking do not require a behavior plan. Habits have a settling effect and as long as the habit is not dangerous, disgusting, disruptive, expensive or disfiguring, it should be ignored.
when not to ignore
When a habit has been identified as a problem, talk to the child about it respectfully—without shaming. Explain what a habit is, and that behavior can be altered by practicing new behaviors. Explore good habits such as saying “thank you” along with bad habits such as chewing holes in one’s shirt. Explain that good habits are learned by practicing and this can also help with replacing bad habits with better ones. A child must then be urged to think about how the habit started and what makes it continue. Nose picking began as a very productive maneuver to remove boogers, right? But a new habit may be to use a tissue instead.
Motivate the child to make a change. Help him identify how his life will somehow be improved without the habit. Then build awareness. Get the child to think about when and why he engages in the behavior. If the child recognizes that the habit is most likely when he is nervous or idle, think of some things to keep his hands occupied. Fidgets to hold, doodling, hobbies like crocheting can help the child stay busy when he or she is in a “danger zone” like TV time or seated in class. Then think of ways to make the behavior more difficult or less comforting. For example, kids who pick their scabs will find it more difficult to do so if they wear long pants and sleeves- less exposed skin. Compulsive hair pulling (called trichotillomania) is harder if hair is cut very short or kept braided. For shirt chewers or booger eaters, it may be helpful to keep the mouth busy with chewing gum.
Help children tune in to feelings that may be behind the habit and see if changes can be made to increase coping (exercising, meditating). If your child has obsessive compulsive disorder, she can learn to talk back to the compulsive thoughts (investigate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Habit-busting ideas should be part of a larger strategy if your child is engaging in painful behaviors to bring relief. If a child is hurting themselves to relive tension (cutting), seek therapy to treat at the problem.
Recognize all of your child’s efforts to change bad habits and acknowledge these new habits with praise. Expect old habits to reemerge during times of stress. However, once your child has had experience controlling a habit, it is never as hard to break the habit a second or third time. Once they have a strategy that works, they will be in charge of themselves rather than the habits “bossing them around.”
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a New Orleans developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.