Bad Habits. Help us, please!

Children and bad habits can be downright annoying and embarrassing. 

You should first try to understand why your child is doing unwanted behavior.

When children are bored, stressed, tired, insecure, or unhappy, the bad habit begins. 

Most of those annoying behaviors are a way of coping with life or a self-soothing technique.

Most of the time, children will outgrow these bad habits. They are just “phases” and not serious medical problems. The child’s drive for social acceptance will help the child drop the habit altogether. 

As a parent, managing a bad habit can be stressful. The best approach is to try to ignore the habit.

If you try to punish or call attention to the behavior, it may even increase the frequency of the bad habit.

Thumb and finger sucking

Thumb and finger sucking typically starts in the first few months of life.  It may continue on through childhood. Most babies outgrow it before their first birthdays.  Most will stop by the age of 5 due to peer pressure.

Sucking is a self-soothing technique. 

It may become problematic when permanent teeth start to come in (around the age of 5) if the sucking hasn’t stopped.  It may change the shape of the child’s palette and bite. Using a pacifier for sucking, is better than sucking a thumb. 

Here are some ideas in order to get rid of a pacifier:

  • Cut slits in the pacifier, which makes it less effective and a child may lose interest
  • Prepare the child for the pacifier fairy.  You can put all the pacifiers in a container and let the child know that the pacifier will come and take them away and leave a special treat for them.  
  • If removing the pacifier all together is too stressful, you may want to have the child leave it in the bedroom for night time and nap time only. 

Head rolling, headbanging, and body rocking

A child can repeatedly hit their head against a solid object such as a crib.  Some children may bang their head as many as 80 times a minute.

This can be frightening for a parent. 

The child does not appear to be in pain, but rather calm. The habit may begin at the age of 9 months and resolve itself around the age of 2.

Head rolling is when an infant moves their head from side to side when lying on their back.  This movement may even cause the child to lose their hair completely off the back of their head.

Body rocking is when a child rhythmically rocks while sitting or resting on their knees or elbows. 

This habit may begin at around the age of 6 months and disappear by the age of 2. Most children rock for 15 minutes or less.  Like head banging, it often occurs while listening to music or falling asleep. 

Headbanging, 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 it with your pediatrician, who can help you decide whether there is any cause of concern.

Teeth grinding

Teeth grinding or clenching, is a habit seen in over half of all infants of normal development.

It usually begins around the age of 6 months when the baby teeth come in and again around the age of 5 when permanent teeth come in. Teeth grinding happens mainly during sleep. 

Children usually outgrow it, but the habit may continue into adulthood. A parent needs to be concerned when adult teeth are in because it can create dental problems or a disorder of the jaw joint.

If your child is grinding his/her adult teeth, your child may need an evaluation by a dentist.

Nail and cuticle biting or picking

If your child has recurrent bleeding or infection of the nail bed, these habits are a concern. 

Like other habits, positive reinforcement strategies are the most effective way to stop the behavior. 

If you catch your child without their fingers in their mouth, you simply describe what they are doing positively with their hands.  For example, “You are using your fingers to rub the doggies tummy and he likes it!”

There are sour-tasting nail polishes that can help with the biting.  Some families have success with applying band-aids to the nail or putting vinegar on the pad of the band-aid to make it taste bad.

If you would like to have a complete list of methods from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital to help break your child’s bad habits download the guide below.

Nose picking

Nose picking is the most embarrassing behavior for parents. It is the least socially acceptable habit. However, it is the most common.

Picking is the most common cause of frequent nosebleeds.

Tell your child that picking their nose 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 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 of times each 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 before bed can also help. Talk to your child’s primary care provider to find out what they recommend reducing your child’s nose irritation.

Hair twirling/hair pulling

Hair loss may be a sign of medical problems such as infection or other diseases.

Your child should see their pediatrician if they are losing hair.  One of my clients discovered his 5-year-old suffers from Alopecia, which is an auto-immune disorder.

On 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 by a physician.


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 when asked. A tic may occur more frequently at certain times and not at others.

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 (private parts) fairly regularly by the age of 5-6 years.

Most often, masturbation is a normal part of childhood development.

It is important to remember that at this age, masturbation is NOT sexual to the child.

If you have concerns about your child’s masturbation, your pediatrician can be a helpful resource.


Breath-holding episodes are scary for parents.

A breath-holding spell is an episode where the child stops breathing for a short period of time after an upsetting, frightening or painful experience.

Sometimes the child holds their breath to the point of losing consciousness. Sometimes the child can have seizure-appearing behavior with the breath-holding spells.

The breath-holding episode may last from a few seconds to a minute. The spells usually happen most often around 18 to 24 months and stop by the age of 5.

If your child does lose consciousness during one of these episodes, do not panic. There are no long-term effects from breath-holding spells. It is also important to know that the episodes are not voluntary.

When a breath-holding spell occurs, keep the child calm and protect them from injury.

How can I break my child’s bad habit?

The first step is to try ignoring annoying behavior. 

Attention to the behavior may actually encourage the behavior.  Use positive reinforcement for good behavior and try to uncover the stress that may be adding to the bad habit.

If your child has more than one bad habit, you should focus on breaking one bad habit at a time. The best one to start with is the one bad habit that is the most annoying.  And, give your child choices on how they may want to stop the bad habit.

DOWNLOAD a complete list of methods from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital to help break your child’s bad habits by clicking below.

My grandson is 4 years old.  My daughter was having problems potty training my Grandson’s bowel movements.

He could urinate just fine in the potty.  However, she noticed that he would like to have privacy, put a diaper on, and head to another room and shut the door when he was ready to have a bowel movement.

We worked on a plan.

First, she will have her husband work with my Grandson, Flynn. 

He will let Flynn know that he is going to school next year and he is growing into a big boy now.  He will then work from a positive angle by letting Flynn know that he knows he likes his privacy, which he can get better privacy in the bathroom since he can lock the door. 

He will then ask Flynn which bathroom he would choose (the choice is important here because he thinks he is part of the solution). 

Then, he will let Flynn know that he will get even more privacy by going in the potty (again working from a positive angle and it is something he likes, which is privacy) because no one will have to help him clean up after he is done. 

Flynn will then get to choose a date that works best for him and they can start to mark off the days of the calendar to match Flynn’s choice.

I will let you know if it works.

The TWO most important things in helping to break a bad habit ARE framing it in a positive way and giving your child choices.

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