Helping a Child with a “Bad” Habit.

Dear Sharon,

My son is constantly picking his nose and I can’t get him to stop. It seems to be a nervous habit and he’s now 10 years old and it looks terrible. Some teachers have mentioned it also, and they have tried to talk to him about it.

Do you have any advice?

Dear Parent,

Many children (and adults) have developed at least one behavior to cope with “nervousness.” Biting nails, twirling hair, and cracking knuckles, are a few examples of common habits. Of course some nervous habits such as your son’s can offend others.

It is useful to remember that children go through stages of maturity and more often than not eventually grow out of nervous habits like nose picking, however If parents want or need to help speed the process along it is possible to do.

Unfortunately helping someone stop a nervous habit is rarely easy Sometimes repeated reminders are helpful, but often only for a limited period of time. Here are some suggestions that might help you and your son sort through other possible solutions:

Parents I have worked with have begun to help their child control a nervous habit by setting aside a period of relaxed time to discuss the issue. It is often a good idea to have some fun before beginning the “heart to heart” and for Mom and/or Dad to stay relaxed and uncritical if at all possible when speaking. (I know this is easier said than done). Weekends or vacations when homework and everyday pressures are not the focus of attention can support the calm atmosphere that is often needed.

It can also be useful to begin such conversations by helping the child acknowledge that a habit such as nose picking is one they ideally would like to stop if they could. A child’s personal agreement to try and make a change is often a better starting place than a halfhearted concession to adult authority.

One way to help a young person feel more in control and able to act and less resigned and passive when confronted with other people’s reactions is to ask them to propose one or two ideas that could move things forward. Children are often quite creative about strategies that might help.

Remembering the idea of “one day at a time” can also make it easier to break a habit. If a child can agree to try and stop for a short period of time (a day, week or even a few hours) a parent can offer rewards for success and the child might feel less overwhelmed about achieving the ultimate goal. The young person might also notice that without the offensive behavior it is easier for people to be around them. At that point the accomplishment becomes its own reward.

It is often difficult for parents to be hopeful and confident about ending their child’s nervous habit, especially when other adults such as teachers are concerned about the problem. Nevertheless I have seen many instances when relaxed time and attention from parents has made all the difference.