How to Stop Kids From Biting Their Nails, Sucking Their Thumbs, and More

How to Stop Kids From Biting Their Nails, Sucking Their Thumbs, and More

Your kids’ little quirks make drive you crazy sometimes. Help them overcome unseemly behaviors with some expert advice.

How to Break a Bad Habit

You adore your child, but you can’t say the same about some of his annoying habits: The knuckle cracking. The nail nibbling. The way he interrupts your phone calls with emergency pleas for sweets. Relax—there are a few wise strategies to restore your sanity.First, it’s important to understand the impulse behind the actions. If he’s smacking away at the dinner table, he may just need an etiquette adjustment. However, some parental button-pushers—like thumb-sucking, nail biting, knuckle cracking, and hair twirling—are unconscious ways to relieve tension. They can help alleviate feelings that a child is experiencing in a big way—boredom, anxiety, over-excitement.

A gentle approach is best. Shaming or punishing him may just compound the stress that’s feeding these habits in the first place. Instead, he says, try to point out the appeal of giving up the behavior. If he clings to the thumb, for instance, say, “You’re a big kid now, and I don’t think big kids do that anymore."

Since these activities often fill an important sensory need, help your child find a substitute. Don’t underestimate the power of incentives. If she goes a day without biting her nails, let her choose dinner. And for every success, praise lavishly. “A little ‘whoop-de-do!’ is as much a reward as anything.”

Nail Biting

Nail biting sometimes indicates Nervous Nellydom, but not always. Your child may start by innocently trying to nip away a hangnail; the nibbling can cause soreness, which draws her attention back to it.

The substitute: Munching on pumpkin seeds or dried fruit can satisfy the gnawing impulse. You can also give your child an emery board so she can gently file away when her nails call her name.

Knuckle Cracking

That impressive noise is caused by popping gas bubbles in the fluid surrounding the joints. It can, admittedly, feel satisfying (and even macho).

The substitute:

Distract your child by giving him some Bubble Wrap to pop, then send him to another part of the house.

Also try:

Finger exercises can be a quiet alternative to cracking. They help develop strength and dexterity. Tell your kid they’re like push-ups and sit-ups for your hands.Try finger bends: Press hands together, then gently bend all fingers over to the left, then to the right.


Non-nutritive sucking—pacifiers, fingers—is expected for babies and toddlers. First, it’s instinctive, but then it’s soothing. Most kids give it up by age 3 or 4. Eventually it could lead to buckteeth, an overbite, or jaw-alignment issues.

The substitute: Give your child a squishy ball, to fiddle with, especially when he’s most likely to go for the thumb (like TV time).

Interrupting Conversations

Curiously, the moment you get a phone call is the very second your child has to share her deep need for a piece of gum.The substitute: Many parents tell a child to stop interrupting but in the same breath respond to the request. Then the child learns the method is effective. Experts recommend asking your child to put her hand on you when she wants attention and then putting your hand on hers so she knows that you’ve “heard.” That demonstrates mutual respect and teaches patience.”

Open-Mouthed Chewing

No one wants to dine with a child who looks like a front-loading washing machine on spin.The substitute: Explain that chewing with your mouth open makes people uncomfortable. Tell him that if his friends and classmates can see inside his mouth, they may lose their appetite and not want to eat with him anymore. You can also try putting a mirror in front of the kid at dinner so he sees how disgusting the habit really is.



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