Lots of children have habits like nail-biting and thumb-sucking. The good news is that most habits go away by themselves. But if you need to help your child break a habit, here are some practical steps to take.

What are habits?

A habit is a behaviour that your child does over and over again, almost without thinking. 

Often our children’s habits might bother or frustrate us, but usually it’s nothing to worry about.

Children’s habits usually involve touching or fiddling with some part of their face or body. Sometimes children are aware of their habits, and sometimes they aren’t.

Some common habits in children are:

  • sucking a finger, thumb or dummy
  • biting or picking at nails
  • twirling and pulling hair
  • picking their nose or sores
  • picking at their lips or the insides of their cheeks
  • chewing objects like pencils and clothing
  • grinding teeth.

Why do habits start?

Habits can be comforting for kids. Sucking is a good example. As toddlers leave behind their baby stage, habits like thumb-sucking can be a way of soothing stress or anxiety.

But anxiety isn’t always the reason for children’s habits. Sometimes habits happen because children are bored. That is, the behaviour is just how children entertain themselves. For example, children are actually more likely to bite their nails while watching TV or doing nothing at all than when they’re feeling anxious. 

Sometimes habits start for practical reasons but keep going when the practical reasons have gone. For example, young children with colds often pick their noses to clear them. Children who keep picking even after they’ve learned to blow their noses probably have habits.

You’re a role model for your child. If you see your child starting a habit, perhaps ask yourself whether it’s one of your own habits. For example, nail-biting might be passed on within a family. 

Note: some toddlers seem to get comfort from some common but slightly unusual behaviour, including body-rocking, head-rolling and head-banging. These habits usually disappear by the age of 18 months.

Some behaviour might look like a habit but have a medical cause. For example, if a child suddenly starts pulling or hitting an ear and is also cranky, it might be because she has an ear infection or is teething.

Breaking habits

Most habits go away by themselves. But if your child’s habit is getting in the way of everyday activities, has become embarrassing, or is even causing some harm, you might want to take action.

For example, sucking thumbs or fingers is normal and common. But your child might be sucking fingers all the time. If this is getting in the way of talking or eating, or your child is being teased by peers because of it, it could be time to break the habit.

Some tips for breaking habits

  • A gentle reminder can be enough. For example, if your child sucks on a sleeve, you can say, ‘Please don’t chew on your sleeve – it’s a bit yucky’.
  • Try to encourage your child to do something else during idle times. For example, you could encourage your child to play with a toy that has moveable parts while watching television. Maybe try a hand game like ‘Incy Wincy Spider’.
  • Try to find out why your child is doing the habit, and suggest an alternative. For example, if your child wriggles around when a wee or poo is coming instead of just going to the toilet, you could say, ‘Do you need to go to the toilet? Use your words and tell me’.
  • Habits can come in pairs, like sucking a thumb and pulling hair. When you stop the thumb-sucking, the hair-pulling might also stop.
Praise will go a long way towards stopping habits. For example, you can say, ‘That’s great, I can really hear your words clearly when your fingers aren’t in your mouth’.

When to get help for habits

At about three years of age, thumb-sucking and finger-sucking can become a problem for children’s teeth development. If your child is still finger-sucking beyond three years, talk to your pharmacist about using other approaches, like a sticking plaster or a paint-on solution. The solution makes fingers taste yucky.

If you’re concerned that your child’s sucking is causing problems, you could see your dentist about using a palate barrier. This device makes it uncomfortable for children to suck thumbs or fingers.

If you think anxiety might be the reason behind a habit, you might need to deal with the cause of the anxiety. Talk to your GP about getting a referral to another health professional. For example, a psychologist can teach your child some simple steps to stop the habit.

Habits in children with disability

Children with disability might have more habits than typically developing children, or habits that are more pronounced. A psychologist or other specialist experienced with disability can help if you’re looking for more information.

Habit or tic?

Tics aren’t habits. Tics are muscle spasms that cause jerky movements that seem out of the child’s control. Examples include repeated blinking, face twitches and arm or shoulder jerks. Sometimes tics are caused by conditions like Tourette syndrome or by stress.

A child might be able to stop a tic for a short time, but it will come back when the child stops thinking about it. If you feel a tic is distressing for your child, it’s best to seek help from a health care professional. Your GP is always a good place to start.

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Last updated or reviewed
28-11-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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