Children and habits

Your child may do things that are normal for their age to help them feel calm and safe when they are stressed, worried or going through a lot of change.

Sometimes these can become a habit which your child repeats often and without thinking.

Most habits are nothing to worry about and your child will grow out of them as they learn other ways to cope.

But if a habit gets in the way of your child doing everyday activities, or it harms or embarrasses them, there are some things you can do to help them stop.

Dummies, thumbs and other comforters

Sucking is healthy and normal for babies. It’s linked to their need for food and is a way for them to explore their world.

As your baby gets older, they might suck on a dummy, their thumb, a soft toy or a special piece of blanket.

This can help them feel safe and secure - eg: at bedtime or when being cared for by others.

They will usually grow out of this as they get older.

To help your child give up their dummy or comforter you can:

  • wait until they are ready - they might get anxious or upset if you try to take them away when they're still needed
  • choose a time when they are not stressed, lonely or bored
  • suggest they put it somewhere safe while they are busy - let them know they can get it without asking you
  • pin it inside their pocket so they can hold it when needed.

If your child still needs a comforter a lot after 5 or 6 years of age, it’s important to try to work out what is happening in their life and to deal with any issues that are worrying them.

Nailbiting

Your child might bite their nails because they are anxious, shy, still teething, have nothing to do with their hands, or it’s become a habit.

If it makes their fingers bleed or get infected, or otherwise becomes a problem, you can try the following:

  • give your child something to do with their hands when relaxing or watching TV
  • give older children special nail care - manicured nails and nail polish may motivate them to stop biting
  • praise them for small wins in changing the habit.

Some parents use bitter paint on nails, but this can be very unpleasant and often doesn’t work.

Nose picking

Most children pick their nose.

Your child might start to pick their nose if it is irritated when they have a cold or hay fever, but then it becomes a habit.

Nose picking does not cause health problems, except sometimes nose bleeds.

Your child will usually stop picking their nose in public when they learn it isn’t OK in front of others.

It can help to:

  • teach your child to use a tissue to clean their nose - make sure there is always one handy
  • interrupt the behaviour by quickly asking them to do something - eg: to hold something for you
  • ask them to rub rather than pick their nose
  • have a ‘secret signal’ you use with an older child as a reminder to not pick.

Try not to focus on a child’s habit too much as it could increase their stress and reward the behaviour by giving them more attention when they do it.

Pulling out hair

Many children twirl or stroke their hair. Your child might do it when they suck their thumb, or when they feel tired or anxious.

If your child is pulling their hair out you can try the following:

  • try to ignore it - most children will stop pulling out their hair in time
  • help your child relax with a gentle scalp massage
  • provide special haircare for older children
  • think about hair styles - short hair is harder to pull out than long hair.

Teeth grinding

Your child might grind their teeth at night or clench their jaw tightly. This can give them headaches or a sore jaw. It can also damage their teeth.

Teeth grinding happens when your child is asleep, so it’s important to remember:

  • you can’t make your child stop through rewards or punishments
  • it isn’t helpful to wake them to stop the grinding - this is likely to make it worse.

Talk with your dentist if it continues.

Headbanging

Headbanging is common in toddlers. It can begin at about nine months and usually stops before four years. A child might bang their head for only a few minutes, or for several hours. It’s more common in boys than girls.

Your child might bang their head because:

  • the rhythm comforts and soothes them as they fall asleep
  • it helps distract them from the pain of teething or an ear infection
  • it might get your attention.

Usually headbanging is not serious. Even if your child bangs their head quite hard, they probably won’t hurt themselves or get upset by any pain.

Your child will most likely stop banging their head without your help. However, your child’s headbanging might worry you, so you can try the following:

  • remove hard bedheads and shift the bed away from the wall
  • don’t pad their cot or bed - they might get trapped
  • wait until your child is ready before putting them down to sleep
  • stroke their head to comfort them while they fall asleep
  • give them other ways to enjoy rhythm - such as dancing, marching or clapping hands to music
  • talk to a community nurse or your doctor if it happens so often that it disturbs your child’s play or sleep, or you think it might be part of a developmental problem.

Body rocking and head rolling are similar to headbanging and will usually go away in time.

Breath holding

Breath holding can be frightening to watch but will not hurt your child. It’s very common in toddlers and sometimes happens in babies. 

Most children stop doing it by about 6 years.

Your child might hold their breath if they are frightened, angry, upset, or have hurt themselves.

if your child passes out during a breath-holding spell, keep them lying down until they recover.

Their body will relax and they will automatically start to breathe again.

If your child holds their breath, you should:

  • reassure others that your child is OK and not in danger
  • if driving, stop the car to ensure you’re both safe
  • not punish or reward the behaviour - treat your child normally after
  • try to learn what triggers the breath holding so you can take steps to avoid it.

Coughing

Sometimes a cough that starts with a cold or another physical cause can turn into a habit.

If your child has a habit cough from stress it will probably sound different to other coughs. It might be louder and more obvious, quiet, or a single cough repeated every few minutes.

Coughing that goes on for many weeks may be due to a physical problem such as asthma or hay fever.

If your child coughs a lot you could try the following:

  • get them checked by a doctor to make sure there is no physical cause for the cough
  • if they are old enough, encourage them to talk about any worries - having someone listen and understand can help.

Touching genitals

It’s natural for your child to be curious about their body and to touch their genitals as part of learning.

By early school years, they will probably learn that this is something they should do in private.

If you are worried by your child's genital touching you should:

  • respond calmly - choose to either ignore the behaviour or distract them with something else
  • talk with your child about bodies and privacy
  • read a book with them to help them learn more about their body.

If your child is engaging in sexual behaviour that worries you, talk with a doctor, counsellor or child health nurse.

Read more about children and learning about sexuality.

More information

Find out more, including where you can get help to deal with your child's habits, on the following pages: 

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017