Habits in School-aged Kids

All of us have some “bad” habits – even children. Their habits tend to drive parents nuts; nail-biting, knuckle cracking, biting on shirts, or picking at their lip or skin seem to be designed to make parents worry and nag. The worry is unnecessary and the nagging won’t help! Habits like these are very common,   even normal and usually go away if ignored, in just a few months.

That’s right – most experts agree that ignoring the habit will be the quickest path to it disappearing. You can actually prolong these habits and make them more severe by constantly calling attention to them. It is also helpful to take time to talk directly with your child about their habit. In a quiet moment explain why you want them to stop the habit. Biting on nails can lead to skin infections and more colds, chewing on shirts ruins them and licking lips makes them dry and chapped.

Of course, you may be tempted to chide or nag your child into stopping them.  However, often these habits are not completely conscious, so telling your child to stop them may help at that moment, but won’t help over the long run.  These habits tend to be more noticeable after a stressful situation – physical or emotional – and tend to resolve some when your child has time to relax.

Another frequent occurrence is tics – rapid and repeated involuntary movements most often of the face or neck.  These can include eye blinking, shoulder shrugging, grimaces, sniffing, neck twisting or throat clearing.  A habit cough is another example.  These coughs are often dry and honking in nature.  They tend to develop after a cough from a cold or respiratory infection, but continue after the other symptoms have disappeared.  They are present exclusively during the day and will disappear at night and during sleep.

However, your child may get teased about having the habit and may want to talk about it with you.  They may want to understand why this is happening to them since they can’t control it.  Therefore, you may want to gently talk about it and acknowledge it without making a big deal about it or making your child feel like they are doing something wrong.  It would be helpful to come up with a way for your child to explain to other children what is happening when they notice and stare.  They could say something like, “When I get scared, my body takes over. Some people’s hearts beat faster or hands shake.  I do this.”

You can also help by getting to the underlying cause of the habit – reducing the stress in your child’s life.  Talk openly about whether anything is going on at school – such as bullying or feelings of inadequacy.  Overscheduling your child may be an additional source of stress.  Sometimes tics that start under stressful situations may continue even after the stress is removed.  However, most will still self-resolve if gently addressed and predominantly ignored.

If the habits are causing your child a great deal of emotional stress, are persistent and frequent or are lasting more than a year, you should talk to your pediatrician.  If there are multiple habits occurring at the same time, like sniffing and head turning with vocalizations, your child may have a more severe tic disorder called Tourettes Syndrome.  If you have a family history of Tourettes or if these symptoms occur while your child is taking medication for ADHD, you also should contact your pediatrician.  Finally, if you are unable to figure out why your child is stressed or help alleviate that stress, it is also a good idea to seek professional help.

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