6 Tips for Breaking Your Child’s Nervous Habits

6 Tips for Breaking Your Child’s Nervous Habits

Experts weigh in on how to go about breaking kids’ nervous habits.

By Judy Koutsky

It seems like every child has her nervous habit: twirling her hair, picking at her nails, chewing the sleeves of her shirt. What gives? We asked the experts why kids have these compulsions and how to get them to stop.

1. Recognize why it’s a habit. When kids bite their shirt collars, chew on their nails, or pick at a scab, it could be a red flag that they are suffering from anxiety, says Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist based in Beverly Hills, California, and a clinical faculty member of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. You need to look into what is making your child nervous in the first place. “Ask him if he's worried about school, being bullied, not getting on a team, or something going on in the family,” says Lieberman. If your child won’t say, and her nervous habit persists, consider taking her to a therapist or talking to your pediatrician.

2. Respond directly to the habit. If your child is constantly negative as a way of dealing with stress or anxiety (“I hate school,” “I don’t want to go to soccer,” etc.), explain to him the difference between positive and negative, says Joan Munson, PhD, co-author of 50 Plus One Great Life Lessons to Teach Your Children.

She suggests explaining that when children are positive, other kids want to be around them, and they feel happier, but when kids are negative and cranky all the time, nobody wants to be their friend. “I’m not sending the message that kids have to be filled with sunshine all the time, but there are constructive ways to voice complaints without bringing others down,” says Munson. Share ways that a child can voice that he’s angry or upset without using the word “hate.”

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3. Physically remove the thing that’s becoming the habit. “My daughter Alexis would constantly bite the ends of her long-sleeve shirts. It drove me nuts,” says Mildred, a mom of three, who lives in Chicago, Illinois. Then, her teachers started rolling up her sleeves every day. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that, but just rolling the sleeves up to her elbow eliminated the issue,” she said. If your child is constantly chewing on the ends of her hair, then pull her hair back into a high ponytail or braid. Biting nails? Cut them short. Removing the culprit can often stop the habit.

4. Motivate them to break the habit. Motivation can go a long way with kids, even if it’s just to please an adult (their mom, dad, or teacher), says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a parent coach who works with parents and kids dealing with ADHD. “If a child has a clear reason, interest, or motivation, they’ll make a change,” she says. Maybe it’s a new pair of sneakers, extra dessert, or a movie with Mom. Talk to your child and together agree on a reward he can receive once the habit is broken.

5. Be aware that often, the habit goes away on its own. Nervous habits can serve to comfort an anxious child. These habits can develop very early in childhood and frequently resolve without a specific intervention, says psychiatrist Ivan Walks, MD. In the meantime, support and encourage your child when he is behaving appropriately. Focus on the positive things that he’s doing.

6. Replace the habit with something else. Parents should work with their child's school to identify and implement age-appropriate replacement behaviors, says Walks. Talk to your child’s teacher to see if he or she can suggest something. If your child is constantly fidgeting in class, maybe the teacher can suggest putting a small object in his pocket that he rubs when he’s feeling anxious. A simple swap like that could do the trick.

What is your child’s nervous habit? 

Judy Koutsky is the former Editorial Director of KIWI magazine, a green parenting publication. She was also Executive Editor of Parenting.com, AOL Parent and BabyTalk.com. Follow her on Twitter

Image ©iStock.com/jackscoldsweat

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