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Thumbsucking, Hair-Twirling And Other Comfort Habits

Oct 24, 2007
Do you have a thumbsucking child? A hair-twirler? Or has your sweet little one picked up a different comfort habit altogether?

Are you fine with this? Or is it driving you crazy? More importantly, should you ignore their habit or should you take action?

All four of my children sucked their thumbs when they were little. For most of them, it was a difficult habit to break. Clearly the habit was for comfort and became more so as they grew.

The question for most parents becomes (as it did for me), what's wrong with a comfort habit? Your children need to do *something* for comfort, don't they? Or are these habits that feel so good actually hurting them...does thumbsucking cause teeth problems, for example?

If you do an online search for these habits, you'll see there is no shortage of information or advice concerning them. In fact, it's downright confusing.

Given this confusion, ignoring these habits and hoping they will go away on their own is certainly one option. But what are the consequences of this course of action? In my own family, for two of my children, ignoring their thumbsucking resulted in thousands of dollars of orthodontic treatment. (Note - this is not always the result of thumbsucking, but was in these cases.) With a third child, we took definitive action, learned a lot, and helped her break her thumbsucking habit before damage to her teeth occurred. Another of our children broke the habit fairly easily when he weaned himself from his favorite blanket.

To help you decide what to do, you'll need to discover how deeply ingrained these habits are. A mild habit might more easily be released by your child when you ignore the behavior and distract her with more interesting activities.

However, let's face it. If you're reading this article, you probably have already tried that and discovered your child's comfort habit is fairly well ingrained.

Another option is to decisively take action to stop these habits. This can range from simple awareness to detailed plans, including working with health care professionals, in order to help your child move forward.

If you decide you want to take productive action, now what? Well, what are the situations in which your child uses his comfort habit? Does he thumbsuck mostly when he's bored? Is the hair-twirling mostly when she's nervous? By doing a little simple detective work, you can learn a lot about your child's individual needs and use that information to your advantage.

For example, if boredom is the culprit, you can teach your little one to tell you he is bored instead of using his comfort habit. You can provide him with interesting activities designed to challenge his brain and keep his hands busy. You can even set up a simple chart (that's what we did), so as to track success and build confidence. Form a team with him so he knows he can trust you with this sensitive issue. Like anything else, this requires practice and patience.

No matter what method you choose to use to help your child, you'll want to keep in mind the following. Your child genuinely needs the comfort angle of these habits. A child who has learned to comfort herself in a reasonable way has learned something very important. The trick is to help your child make a transition using a new 'comfort tool' that the two of you decide on together.

But the child should know that comforting herself is a good thing and you are happy she is taking good care of herself.

You'll notice none of these ideas include yelling or embarrassing your child. Those methods get employed out of frustration (usually on the part of the parent) and they simply don't work long-term. If you use such methods regularly, you are sure to drive the comfort habit underground and help to more deeply ingrain it. And that's not the response you're looking for.

So be patient. Use some detective work to discover new and healthier comfort habits for your young one. Get on their team and show them the vital life skill of exchanging a beloved, but challenging habit for a better one. Celebrate their successes no matter how small or how long it takes.

Helping your child manage thumbsucking, hair-twirling and other childhood comfort habits is an important part of your positive family relationship.
About the Author
Colleen Langenfeld has been parenting for over 26 years and helps other moms enjoy mothering more at http://www.paintedgold.com . Visit her website and get more tips on handling thumbsucking today.
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