Thumb Sucking: when the habit carries into Adolescence

Seeing a child of 3, 4, or even 6 years of age with their finger in their mouth might spark a sense tenderness in you.  But, how do you feel when you see a child that is 8,9, or even 13 or 15 years with this same habit?Thumb Sucking: when the habit carries into Adolescence

Children’s habits

Children develop lots of ways to deal with emotions they feel like they can’t handle, or those that cause the some type of conflict, like nail biting, wrapping themselves into a ball, or thumb sucking.  This last action is one of the most common ways of expressing anxiety, nervousness, boredom, insecurity, guilty feelings, to the need for attention, among other things.

Thumb Sucking

In reality, sucking your thumb isn’t entirely bad, but is simply a reaction to different circumstances.  The problem with any of these habits is that, if not eradicated in time, they can become harmful in some ways.  For example, they can alter tooth or palate formation, they can transport parasites to the stomach, etc.  Or they can even create a mechanical habit that could be more difficult to overcome as time goes on.  This could become an unpleasant accompaniment when children begin to grow, and reach adolescence.

A lot of children drop these habits as they mature.  However, it is more difficult for others.  If you child still hasn’t given up thumb sucking, remember that threats and negotiations to “leave the thumb behind” don’t work after a certain age.  Their thumbs become, in some ways, an emotional support; it’s like trying to take a long-time friend away from them.  You must treat pre-adolescents and adolescents in more mature ways to help them drop this habit.

3 Advices for parents

We will talk about advice here, for you to help your young child to drop this habit, and not substitute it for others, like eating candy, biting their nails, or smoking or drinking (habits that could arise from this same habit).  Rather, help them find a way to mature whatever it is that makes them feel worried and constantly nervous.

1. Anxiety and guilt are a few of the emotions that I believe cause this type of habit.  Making children feel guilty for something they did “wrong” causes them to feel anxiety and guilt.  They find no outside refuge for their behavior, so they take refuge in these habits.  The best way to prevent this is to try to stop judging your child’s actions, stop punishing, chastising, yelling at them and threatening them.  Instead, help them think and reflect about what they did.  A practical way to do this is to simply show them what they did from an objective viewpoint.  This means avoiding classifying what they did as “good” or “bad”, or telling them how “stupid, abusive, nasty, immature, or bad kids” they are.  They will interpret that as something bad, as something “very, very bad”.  You must learn to speak to them objectively, without a parent’s opinion, but simply by describing what they did.  Help them to understand what they feel and do through means of reflection, and not through fear or imposition.  The best thing you could do is to ask them: “what do you think about what you did?”.  “How could you fix it?”  “What do you think the other person felt when you said that?”  These types of questions help them explore their feelings, and avoids the harmful habit to criticize, judge, or condemn.  These translate into anxiety, stress, and developing habits like thumb-sucking, among other things.

2.  Try to keep the youth/children occupied with activities that allow them to express themselves freely.  Painting, writing, dancing, singing, sports, etc., are all ways in which they can learn to center their attention in more productive and creative actions, and to vent their feelings.  Art is a means of reflection.

3. Lastly, stopping thumb sucking has more to do with an emotional maturity than anything else.  Trying to force them does not help at all.  It’s like trying to rip a cigarette from someone’s mouth.  It requires patience, and don’t spend too much time insisting every 5 minutes.  Rather, observe yourself as the parent; many times it is adult behavior that causes these types of reactions in children.  Criticizing, inflexible authority, punishments for “being bad”, are all strong influences that set this habit in stone.

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