Written by Doctor G

Teaching Kids to Break a Habit

I have a four, almost five year old, who sucks her thumb (since she was 16 weeks old). She had promised to stop on her 5th birthday (one month away), but now that it’s getting closer she doesn’t want to stop. How can we help her transition without the “conventional” methods (bitters on thumb, etc.)?

Jackie, in IN

Breaking a habit is hard!

Breaking a habit that is constantly available to you is even harder.

Here are the truths:

  1. You have no control over this one. She isn’t going to stop until she decides to. If she agrees before she is ready, she will feel ashamed, but chances are she will still suck her thumb.
  2. Only true internal motivation will make the difference. The promise of stickers, a toy, a trip, will seem like a great idea until she needs comfort that she feels only her thumb can provide.
  3. Your reasons for wanting her to stop are not her reasons. Most parents want kids to give it up because we feel it is harmful either emotionally, socially or dental-ly. The social and dental issues may be real, but developmentally she can’t see those. She just wants you to be proud of her.

There are some good options:

  1. Help her discover what would be great about not sucking her thumb. A list of reasons that she finds motivating, with some pictures she draws or cuts out up in her room will help when the time is right.
  2. Be proud of her process. Instead of staking your praise on her accomplishment, talk about being brave (trying something that scares us), persevering (trying in the face of struggle) and patient (with oneself and a new skill).
  3. Give her the power. Let her know that her birthday is a nice marker, but that you recognize that this is her decision and her timeline. It is, so as parents we get a lot more cred when we say so out loud!
  4. Share a struggle. Have you ever quit something you’re willing to discuss with her? Honesty may empower her.

Don’t stake your own feeling of parenting “success” on her 6th year as a thumb-sucking-free time. What is more important is that she learn about the process of changing behaviors, and that you are supporting her always in living her best life. Yup, even at five years old.

Hey parents, have you ever helped a child change a behavior? What worked and what didn’t?

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24 thoughts on “Teaching Kids to Break a Habit”

  1. My son sucked two fingers when he was tired and at night. It did not bother me so we did not talk about it. However, it concerned my mother because she thought he would end up with bucked teeth. I spoke with my dentist and he told me that within a few weeks of quitting the slight pressure of his upper lip on his teeth would cause them to straighten out. So from then on we were not concerned. I don’t remember what age he was when he stopped on his own, and sure enough within 2 weeks his front teeth were straight. I would advise Jackie to tell her daughter that she can stop whenever she wants to and not to worry about it that it is entirely up to her. Then don’t focus on it at all and don’t let others put pressure on her daughter.

  2. I think the point that we as parents really have no control over this helps ease the guilt. One of my twins (also almost 5) is an avid thumb sucker for comfort. I’m having a hard time coming up with things that would be great about stopping though! I don’t think the fewer callouses on her thumb would have much effect. 😉

  3. Jessica @peekababy

    Does she suck during the day, or only at night? Imho, a more attainable goal might be only at night/rest time and only in private. I’d talk about germs etc. I have a kid who chews in his fingers, and we got him an OT necklace to chew on in school when he wants to put his fingers in his mouth. Sugarless um also might help during the day. Your daughter may just need oral comfort until she’s ready to wean herself off of it…a month seems like a short time to end a 5 year habit. Good luck!

  4. This is awesome, Deborah! My daughter is only three but she’s a hardcore thumb-sucker who shows no signs of wanting to give it up. I found your advice very helpful. I especially love the bit about being proud of the process and talking about fear and bravery and patience. These are some fundamentals that I think my husband and I could begin to implement even at our daughter’s still relatively young age.

    Thanks for this!

    1. Kristin, I really appreciate your comment! I think that praising the process for kids at any age teaches them the life lessons we want them to learn.

  5. While quitting, she will still crave sucking, but you can satisfy some of those cravings with certain snacks. Stock up on straws, and offer them with smoothies, or a cup of applesauce thinned with a little water. Ice pops, yogurt sticks, etc.

    Do you know an occupational therapist? When one of my nanny charges was in treatment, I remember reading a handout of other ways to satisfy oral cravings. I dont remember other tips than i gave above, but i am sure there were more. You might even be able to call an OT office and ask for such a handout, or where to find the info online.

    I used the applesauce with a 5yo I occasionally babysat, who was giving up her pacifier and deeply missing it. She enjoyed it, felt much better afterward, and played happily for the rest of my time with her. Her mom loved the tip, and later told me it was helpful going forward.

  6. I do think that part of the success was that I acknowledged her struggle, sympathized, and let her know I would do what I could to support her. And another part was bringing closer the light at the end of the tunnel…there are other, acceptable, ways to get your needs met.

  7. Curious if/how the advice changes regarding pacifiers and a 3-year-old. 🙂 We are hoping to get rid of the pacifier soon. Our current thinking is to talk about a pacifier fairy who will come and take them one day and bring them to babies who need them (and leave in their stead a special surprise — which will be a gift card to a toy store where he can pick out something). And then have some books about loss at the ready. Thoughts??

    1. Aviva, we’ve tried the fairy (not with much gusto, though, I’ll admit.) I’m just at the point where it’s not hurting him to have it so I say screw it. We traumatized our oldest daughter (or so it seemed) when we took her “pass” at about 14 months. Our second daughter gave hers up willingly around age 1 but the boy? He’ll be 4 in September and, well, we’ve TALKED about giving it up but there is some part of me that says just let him do it. He doesn’t use it at school for naps or when he sleeps over with family. It’s only at home and he spits it out after an hour asleep anyway. If he wakes he’ll put it back in but I’m truly just at the point of giving myself permission to let it play out rather than force him to give up something the provides security and comfort. Now, sure, I wonder why he only needs this comfort at home, but that’s a whole other situation.

      1. Arnebya, needing this comfort at home is not a comment on you or home. It is where he feels most able to let it all hang out. And that builds his confidence out in the world.

    2. It is easier to take away a pacifier than a thumb, of course. But it is no less a grieving for the child, if they are truly connected to that lovey. One suggestion is to leave the pacifier always in bed. Any time the child wants the comfort he may go into bed to use it, but the pacifier can’t get out of bed. This guarantees that your child is pacifier free, talking and interacting all day except in moments of great distress.

      1. Thanks for all the thoughts!! I should have mentioned: the 3-year-old ONLY uses the pacifier in bed. (That’s been our rule since he was 6 months.) I think he sleeps with it in most of the night.

        1. Then I think the work to give it up that you were talking about is possible, but not necessarily crucial to do.

  8. Oh my. My now 12 year old sucked her thumb UNTIL SHE WAS EIGHT. Here’s how I got her to finally quit: she had to have teeth removed as she was being prepared for braces. I told her when the teeth were out, and her gums were healing, if she sucked her thumb her gums would turn black and all her teeth would likely fall out. Mean? Yeah, maybe. Did it work? Oh yes.

  9. It was almost thirty years ago, but you know I had this problem. And my kids were all addicted to the pacifiers. My dentist and their dentist said it would be best to stop before our teeth got out of whack. We had to quit the pacifiers cold turkey (after they had transitioned to only at night/naps) by mailing them to new baby cousins. They were sending them to the babies that “needed them” because they were “big kids now”, and while it was hard, it was a good thing to keep reminding them. As for the thumb-sucking, I’m not sure I would’ve stopped at night had it not been for the tactics my parents’ used. I don’t remember if I wanted to stop but i knew I couldn’t, and I don’t think praise would’ve helped. Maybe if I was doing it during the day, but I wasn’t….it was after I went to sleep. It was a HARD habit to break. I might be in the minority, but I don’t think the tactics (like the bitters, or the tape on the thumb) are harmful. They weren’t to me, and they were honestly the only thing I think would’ve done it.

    1. Thank you Greta for this perspective! I do think that we can’t use intrinsic motivators for a habit that is actually unconscious (doing it while asleep)! For that I would say you need to create an unconscious reaction, so tasting something bad is about all that would make a sleeping kid take the thumb back out!

  10. I sucked my thumb until I was 8 years old! My Dad used to tease me about it a lot but he was never in a mean way. I think he finally “shamed” me into quitting but it was really hard and I still have major oral fixation issues. (i.e. bite my nailes, cuticles, etc.) All this to say, I think you are right, with any bad habit (or addiction) it has to be THAT person’s choice to quit. AND, now my sons also bite their nails so I think these are good tips for ALL of us! 😉 Thanks Deborah!

    1. Thanks Elaine! I also have two really oral kids, and am that kind of person myself. I mean, I don’t lick railings while I’m waiting in line like they do, but I understand the impulse!

  11. Thanks Dr G and all of you for your input! This was my post and it had completely made me step back. I didn’t realize the disappointment/guilt I was passing on to her. I told her a few days ago we’ll discuss it some other time and she seemed really relieved.

    1. Jackie, I’m honored you would give my suggestions such credence. I hope that it gives all of you an easier path as you slowly work on this!

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