Kids’ Grossest Habits and How to Stop Them
From nose picking to nail biting to hair chewing, ways to help a child kick nasty behaviors
You know you’ve got a good kid. It’s just some of his habits that are bad — like picking his nose or peeling his scabs. Why do otherwise adorable children sometimes do disgusting things?
“Often these habits are coping strategies for stress, anxiety or boredom,” explains Margaret Hannah, executive director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. If you think your child may be doing something because he’s worried or upset, talk to a professional. Do the same if other kids are making fun of him or shunning him for those habits.
Other times, kids are simply unaware of the rules of hygiene or polite behavior.
Whatever is going on, the sooner you a child kicks a bad habit, the better. Here are some icky things kids do and ways parents can put a stop to them.
Little kids who do this are probably just exploring: They feel a tickle from a piece of dried mucus and instinctively want to find out what’s going on in there. Some may even think it feels good to pick their nose and don’t understand that it’s a gross thing to do.
When your toddler’s pinkie finds its way to his nostril, “gently move his hand away,” Hannah advises. If he’s congested, use a suction bulb to get the gunk out. This also would be a good time to teach him to use a tissue.
With an older child who knows better but picks anyway, start with a reminder about the proper way to clean his nose. “Tell him, ‘Use a tissue and go into the bathroom if you have to do more than just blow a little,’” suggests Hannah. Explain that nose picking can cause infections or nosebleeds — and then make it easy for him to access tissues by tucking a few in his pocket or backpack.
Related: Winter Nosebleeds Do’s and Don’ts
Nail biting and cuticle chewing
Besides being unattractive, these habits can create breaks in skin that allow germs to enter the body. “I’ve worked with kids who do this so much that their fingers bleed,” says Amy Morin, LCSW, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Lincoln, Maine, and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.”
If your child is old enough to understand, explain the danger of infection to your child, she advises. Then have her pretend to bite her nails while standing in front of a mirror. “Make her aware of how it feels when she’s bending her elbow and putting her fingers in her mouth, so the next time she begins to do it, she notices and hopefully stops,” Morin advises. She’ll also remember what it must look like to others.
Another tactic: Tell your child to wiggle her fingers for 30 seconds every time she catches herself about to gnaw on a nail. It will help her become aware of what she’s doing — and she may get so tired of the wiggling game she’ll be motivated to stop biting her nails on her own.
What do you do about a kid who treats her locks like lollipops? While there’s no real health danger, hair sucking is annoying to others and turns a child’s hair into stiff clumps.
“Tell your child that putting her hair in her mouth makes it dirty and that other people don’t like to watch,” says Morin. Then help her break the habit by making it tough for her hair to reach her mouth. Pull it back into a ponytail or single braid. (Pigtails won’t work; if her hair is long enough she’ll still be able to suck on the ends.) When she’s outside, tuck her hair into a hat.
As a last resort, tell her that if she can’t keep her hair away from her face she’ll have to have it cut short. That may be enough to get some kids stop cold turkey. For others, it may be necessary to follow through.
Children may pick at scabs because they’re irritating or itchy. Sometimes kids simply enjoy peeling off a scab, says Morin. But scabs are there for a reason — to keep germs out of a wound so the skin can heal without getting infected. Explain this to your child and then cover the scab with a bandage. Let him choose one with a fun design if he likes. If he picks at the bandage too, give him something else to keep his hands busy when he’s tense or bored, like a small ball or toy that he can squeeze, advises Morin.
Sneezing and coughing on others
If you’re the victim of your child’s wet Achoo!, wipe yourself off and calmly explain that sneezes and coughs can spread germs to other people and make them sick, Morin says. Show her how to cough or sneeze into the crook of her elbow so she doesn’t spew germs into the air. Tell her it’s best not to cough or sneeze into her hands either, because then the germs will be on her fingers and spread to things or people she touches.
Have your kid practice with pretend coughs and sneezes so that tucking her face in her sleeve becomes a habit beforeshe comes down with a cold or flu, suggests Morin. “Once she’s sick, she won’t have the energy to focus on technique.”
Related: How to Control a Coughing Attack