Thumbsucking girlOh, those irritating habits! There can’t be a parent in the land who hasn’t experienced the irritation that comes with watching their child’s persistent thumb-sucking, nail-biting or hair-pulling (trichotillomania).  Even celebrity parents such as the Beckhams can’t get away with it, as pictures of their four-year old daughter Harper with a dummy firmly stuck in her mouth, were splashed all over the press recently. At least most of us get to do our parenting in private, so we can avoid the raised eyebrows and criticism that David and Victoria have had to endure.

Thumb or dummy sucking and nail-biting for that matter, are common enough activities amongst young children who naturally find it comforting. We’re all born with a strong sucking instinct and a desire to explore things with our mouths – our survival depends on it.  Most children will go on to outgrow these annoying habits in middle childhood without too much cajoling. For others, change will come when external events such as a trip to the dentist for corrective braces, presents them with no option.

The frustrating thing, as most parents will vouch for, is that the more you tell your child to stop, the more they seem to do it! Stuck with this never-ending cycle of unwanted behaviour, there often doesn’t seem to be a way out of the problem.  Follow these tips and start breaking those bad habits:

Do stay calm and relaxed: Repeated reminders to stop, rarely work and it can become stressful for both parent and child. Your child can tell by the expression on your face that you do not approve of their behaviour. Once bad feelings become associated with the habit, anxiety will fuel your child’s desire for more comfort. It’s a catch-22 situation.

Identify connecting habits: Our habits connect with other habits and form a kind of ‘network’ or spider’s web in our minds. For example, if your child always sucks their thumb or dummy each time they’re sitting in the back of the car, a connection will be made between these two activities and this can become a powerful force. There’ll be an automatic urge to suck something on long journeys in the future. Breaking this link could be as simple as switching the side of the car that they usually sit on. If they’re used to sucking their thumb and leaning on the window for example, it won’t feel quite the same if they sit on the other side. The brain will become confused and you’ll have a ‘window of opportunity’ to break the habit.

Likewise, if your child can only fall asleep in bed at night with a dummy, then grab the opportunity of a holiday away from home to ‘accidentally’ lose it or forget to pack it. Experts say it can take just seven days to make or break a habit and by the time you return home, the habit will be gone.

Substitution: Think of something else that your child could be doing instead of the unwanted habit – so this could be applying moisturizer to the fingertips in the case of nail-biting or keeping hands and fingers busy with a colouring book and pens, a craft activity or even gaining comfort from stroking silky fabrics and toys.

Always say what you DO want: As we think and speak our minds are constantly making images that our bodies respond to. So, always tell your child what you DO want them to do, rather than what you DON’T. So, rather than saying “Stop sucking – how many times have I told you not to do that.” or worse still “All the other children at school will start laughing at you”, think about using phrases such as “Let’s see if we can keep that thumb nice and dry today” or praising the good behaviour: “I’ve noticed that it’s becoming easier for you to leave the dummy at home now – in fact, you’ll probably be wanting to leave it safe at home all the time now, don’t you think?”

Reverse Psychology: With older children who still suck their thumbs it is possible to create confusion in the mind by encouraging them to suck more, not less. Children are used to being told that it’s good to share and to take turns, so telling them that it’s only fair that the other thumb and fingers all have a turn too can be enough to break the cycle. Each day, it will be a different finger or thumb’s turn to be sucked and it will mean that they have to go 10 days without sucking their favourite one. You can also use phrases such as “I’m not going to tell you to stop sucking your thumb because I know that you’ll know which time will be just right for you. In fact, you’ve probably already started to notice this, haven’t you?” Don’t expect an answer – simply leave the phrase hanging there.

Keep a Photo Diary: Being able to see that we’re making progress, however small the steps, is what keeps us motivated and on track. With cameras built into mobile phones nowadays, it’s going to be easy to keep a photo diary. Encourage your child or teenagers to take a photo of their fingernails (or thumb) each day and notice the changes. After a couple of weeks, they can compare and contrast, or even put the footage together to create a short video, watching their very own fingernails grow.

Alicia Eaton is an expert at helping people change habits and behaviours. The author of “Words that Work – How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything”, she’s a qualified Clinical Hypnotherapist and NLP Practitioner with a successful practice in London’s Harley Street. She’s also a qualified Montessori Teacher and a mother to three grown-up children.