Picky eating, nail-biting, and hair-pulling become habitual if kids don’t have strategies to overcome these negative behaviors. Learn ways to help your child break bad habits and adopt good ones.
Before starting a conversation with your child about their behavior, note when it happens. Does your child start biting their nails, picking their nose, or tugging at their hair in reaction to some events and not others? Are there certain words that set them off? If you can identify what triggers your child’s bad habit, you have an opening to talk about what’s bothering them and how you can help them feel better.
Kids are skillful at getting their parents’ attention. It’s a basic survival skill for infants, but school-age children may deliberately try bad behavior to get a reaction out of parents or because they need some parental comfort. Starting school, the birth of a sibling or the loss of a grandparent is stressful, scary, and upsetting for kids who may not be able to process what’s going on without parental help.
In the absence of a stressful event, a child’s bad habit may simply be an attempt to alleviate boredom or to see how a parent will react. Ignoring a bad habit might not make it go away, but it does reduce the motivation to use a bad habit as an attention-getting tactic.
Provide a Substitute
Giving a child something more interesting to do than engaging in their bad habit can help them learn to substitute something positive. Physical activity or quality time reading can help break a bad habit and encourage a child to adopt a good one instead.
Share your favorite books from childhood with your child, read together, or allow your child to select library books on their own. The big-kid feeling of making their own decision can help a child break a bad habit because they become more interested in a better one.
Use Praise and Avoid Criticism
Correcting your child’s bad habit can induce more anxiety, not less. Try praising your child for excelling at other activities, or when you know they’re tempted but refrain from indulging their negative habit. Be consistent in offering small rewards, like stickers, to acknowledge good behavior.
If your child’s habit becomes severe enough to endanger their health, consult your pediatrician. Inveterate nose-pickers can suffer nosebleeds, nail-biters can get infections, and thumb-suckers can induce dental deformation. Breaking a child’s bad habit by encouraging them to adopt a better one will help your child maintain better health. It can also ease teasing at school, resulting in better relationships with peers.