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What do I need to know about bad habits and
behaviors in children?
Parents find many habits and behaviors of their children annoying. When you
want to change an unwanted behavior, it helps to first understand why your
child is doing it. Often bad habits are just a coping strategy. Your
child may fall back on these behaviors when they are stressed, bored,
tired, frustrated, unhappy, insecure, or falling asleep. Many of these “bad” habits
are calming and soothing to the child. Most
of the time, these behaviors are just “phases” or habits—not serious
medical problems—and the child typically outgrows them. Managing them
can be difficult, however. In general, you should ignore bad habits.
Yelling, calling attention to the habit and punishment do not usually
work to stop the behavior (and may even increase it!), but praise,
positive rewards, and patience are likely to help.
What about thumb and finger sucking and pacifiers?There are different types of sucking kids might do their infancy and childhood.
Thumb and finger sucking
typically starts in the first few months of life. Many babies outgrow
it well before their first birthday, and most stop by age five years
due to peer pressure. Other sucking objects include pacifiers and
blankets. (Get some tips on choosing a safe pacifier
from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).) Sucking
has a soothing, calming effect, and often helps kids get to sleep.
However, it may become worrisome when the permanent teeth start coming
in (around age five) if the sucking alters the shape of the child's
teeth, palate or bite. Get more information on this from the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. For more tips on how to help your child quit sucking, see the AAP's page on how to help your child stop.
What should I know about head banging, head rolling, and body rocking?
movements include head banging, rolling, and body rocking. Head
banging is when a child repeatedly hits their head against a solid
object such as a crib, as much as 80 times a minute. This can be
distressing to the parents or caregivers for concern of injury.
However, the child does not appear to be in pain, but rather calm and
content. The habit usually begins around age nine months and resolves
by around age two years. The episodes usually last from 15 minutes to
a few hours, and typically occur while listening to music or falling
rolling is when an infant rolls their head from side to side when lying
on their back. They may even rub the hair completely off the back of
their head. Body
rocking is when a child rhythmically rocks while either sitting or
resting on their knees or elbows. This behavior usually starts around
age six months and disappears by age two. Most children rock for 15
minutes or less. Like head banging, it occurs while listening to music
or falling asleep. Head banging, head rolling and body rocking are common childhood self-comforting habits. These behaviors are often harmless, but can be worrisome if your child also has developmental delays. Talk about the habit with your pediatrician, who can help you decide whether there is any cause for concern.
What about teeth grinding?
or teeth grinding or clenching, is a habit seen in over half of
all infants of normal development. It usually starts around
age six months when the baby teeth come in and again around five
permanent teeth come in. Teeth grinding happens mainly
during sleep. The child usually outgrows it, but the bruxism
may continue into adulthood. It
can be concerning if it causes dental problems or a disorder of
the jaw joint and may need evaluation by a dentist.
Info for kids on teeth grinding.
What about nail and cuticle biting or picking?
biting or cuticle biting and picking is a concern if it results in
infection of the nail or recurrent bleeding. Like other habits,
positive reinforcement strategies are the most effective way to stop
the behavior. Try to catch your child without their finger in their
mouth, and simply describe what they are doing with their hands
instead. For example, “I see you are folding origami with your
fingers.” Or “You are using your fingers to scratch the cat's ears! She
What about nose picking?Nose
- Point your kids toward these sites: “What's Wrong with Biting My Nails?” and tips on nail care.
picking is one of the most aggravating behaviors to parents because it
is one of the least socially acceptable. However, it is one of the
most common habits among children and adults. Nose
picking starts when crusting occurs from infection, allergies, or minor
trauma. Picking causes more irritation to the nose and may create a
vicious cycle. Picking is the most common cause of frequent nosebleeds. Tell
your child that picking is not acceptable in public, but that they may
use a tissue to clear out the nose and take care of itchiness. Explain
that they are more likely to get sick and pass their germs to others if
they pick their nose. Insist that they wash their hands after they
pick or blow their nose. Often a little petroleum jelly a couple times
a day inside the nose will help to break the vicious cycle of nose
irritation and picking. Keeping the nose moist with a little saline
spray can also help, and is a better option for kids with asthma. Talk to your child's primary care provider to find out what they recommend to reduce your child's nose irritation.
- Kids should check out this page about nose picking and boogers!
What about hair twirling/hair pulling?
Hair loss may be a sign of medical problems such as infection or other
disease. Your child should see their pediatrician if they are losing
the other hand, hair twirling or mild hair pulling that results in
minimal hair loss is just another self-calming behavior seen in infants
and children. Like thumb sucking, it often occurs when the child is
relaxed, bored, or tired. Children usually outgrow this habit on their
own. There is a more serious form of hair pulling, called trichotillomania,
which involves pulling the hair from the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows,
and/or pubic areas. This is a rare disorder that often suggests an
underlying psychological problem and should be evaluated.
What are tics?Tics
are stereotyped behaviors (twitches or movements) that are frequently
repeated. The movement can involve any body part. A facial tic,
especially blinking the eyes, is the most common. Temporary tics are a
habit that starts during childhood or the teen years, and might last
anywhere from one month to a year. The child is able to suppress the
tic voluntarily for minutes to hours. The tic may occur more
frequently at certain times and not at others. They are fairly common.
Rarely, there are vocal tics or more complex tics, which suggest a more serious disorder called Tourette syndrome.
If the tic occurs for longer than one year or the child cannot suppress
it, it may be a sign of a more serious problem and needs evaluation by
your child's doctor.
Most children—both boys and girls—play with their genitals
parts) fairly regularly by the age of 5-6 years. To find
out more, see YourChild
:Masturbation. What about breath holding?
is scary for parents. Breath holding spells are when a child holds
their breath and then may lose consciousness. The episode may last
from a few seconds to a minute. The spells usually happen most often
around 18 to 24 months and stop by age five. There
are two different kinds of spells, cyanotic (child turns blue) and
pallid (child turns deathly pale). Breath holding is a way for your
child to exert control when they do not get their own way. The
symptoms are often confused with a seizure, and the first time you
believe that a child has a breath-holding spell you should take your
child to their doctor for evaluation. The symptoms may be a sign of anemia
(low number of oxygen-carrying cells in the blood). When a breath
holding spell occurs, keep the child calm and protect them from
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