What are habits?
A habit is a behaviour that children do over and over again, almost without thinking.
Children’s habits are usually nothing to worry about.
Children’s habits usually involve touching or fiddling with parts of their faces or bodies. Sometimes children are aware of their habits, and sometimes they aren’t.
Some common habits in children are:
- sucking a finger, thumb or dummy
- biting or picking at nails
- twirling and pulling hair
- picking their noses or sores
- picking at their lips or the insides of their cheeks
- chewing objects like pencils and clothing
- grinding teeth.
Why do habits start?
Habits can be comforting for children. Sucking is a good example. As toddlers leave behind the baby stage, habits like thumb-sucking can be a way of soothing stress or anxiety.
Sometimes habits happen because children are bored. That is, the behaviour is just how children entertain themselves. For example, children are more likely to bite their nails while watching TV or doing nothing at all than when they’re feeling anxious.
Sometimes habits start for practical reasons but keep going when the practical reasons have gone. For example, young children with colds often pick their noses to clear them. Children who keep picking even after they’ve learned to blow their noses probably have habits.
You’re a role model for your child. If you see your child starting a habit, perhaps ask yourself whether it’s one of your own habits. For example, nail-biting might be passed on within a family.
Note: some toddlers seem to get comfort from some common but slightly unusual behaviour, including body-rocking, head-rolling and head-banging. Most children stop this behaviour by the time they’re 5 years old.
Some behaviour might look like a habit but have a medical cause. For example, if a child suddenly starts pulling or hitting an ear and is also cranky, it might be because they have an ear infection or are teething. Pulling at hair, eyebrows and eyelashes can be a sign of an emotional disorder.
Most habits go away by themselves. But if your child’s habit is getting in the way of everyday activities, has become embarrassing, or is even causing some harm, you might want to do something about it.
For example, sucking thumbs or fingers is common and often not a problem. But your child might be sucking fingers all the time. If this is getting in the way of talking or eating, or your child is being teased by peers because of it, it could be time to break the habit.
Some tips for breaking habits
- Gently remind your child about the habit. For example, if your child sucks on a sleeve, you can say, ‘Please don’t chew on your sleeve – it’s a bit yucky’.
- Try to encourage your child to do something else during idle times. For example, you could encourage your child to play with a toy that has moveable parts while watching television. Or you could suggest a hand game like ‘Incy Wincy Spider’.
- Try to find out why your child is doing the habit and suggest an alternative. For example, if your child wriggles around when a wee or poo is coming instead of going to the toilet, you could say, ‘Do you need to go to the toilet? Use your words and tell me’.
- If your child has a pair of habits, like sucking a thumb and pulling hair, focus on stopping one of them. You might find that if you can stop the thumb-sucking, the hair-pulling might also stop.
Praise will go a long way towards stopping habits. For example, you can say, ‘That’s great. I can hear your words clearly when your fingers aren’t in your mouth’.
When to get help for habits
At about 3 years of age, thumb-sucking and finger-sucking can become a problem for children’s teeth development. If your child is still finger-sucking beyond 3 years, talk to your pharmacist about using other approaches, like a sticking plaster or a paint-on solution. The solution makes fingers taste bitter. You could also see your dentist about using a palate barrier. This device makes it uncomfortable for children to suck thumbs or fingers.
If you think anxiety might be the reason behind a habit, you might need to deal with the cause of the anxiety. Talk to your GP about getting a referral to another health professional. For example, a psychologist can teach your child some simple steps to stop the habit.
Habits in children with disability, autism or other additional needs
Children with disability, autism or other additional needs might have more habits than typically developing children, or their habits might be more pronounced. A psychologist or other specialist experienced with additional needs can help if you’re looking for more information.
Habit or tic?
Tics aren’t habits. Tics are muscle spasms that cause jerky movements that seem out of the child’s control. Examples include repeated blinking, face twitches, and arm or shoulder jerks. Sometimes tics are caused by conditions like Tourette syndrome or by stress.
A child might be able to stop a tic for a short time, but it will come back when the child stops thinking about it. If you feel a tic is distressing for your child, it’s best to seek help from a health professional. Your GP is always a good place to start.