This article is suitable for ages 2 - 8

Key points

  • Your child isn’t the only one with a bad habit. A lot of children have one bad habit or the other and usually with little or no help, the habit disappears.
  • Try to find a way that works for you with regards to how you intend to make your child stop his or her bad habit(s).

In this article:

  • What are habits?
  • Most common habits and causes.
  • Habits picked up in school.
  • Breaking habits.
  • Getting help for habits.

What are habits?

You know how angry and frustrated you get when you notice your child sticking his or her finger in the mouth and simultaneously pulling strands of hair for the 10th time? Not good i know! Well, there you have it. Bad habit!

Bad habits are mostly involuntary actions that a child (or even big kids) resort to over and over again. The child does this almost without thinking. Usually parents and caregivers get worried about such habits, and rightly so but one thing to note is that these habits are mostly in themselves not dangerous to anyone and should be nothing to worry about as most children outgrow them (and some even without any help).

Most common habits!

Most habits involves the use of a part or parts of the upper body.  Some common habits in children are:

  • Biting at nails
  • Teeth grinding
  • Sucking a finger, thumb or dummy
  • Picking their nose or sores
  • Sucking on the insides of their cheeks or picking at their lips
  • pulling hair
  • stroking their navels
  • Masturbating

…..And some not so common habits are: breath holding (when upset or crying to the point of losing consciousness), tics, head banging, head rolling and body rocking.

Bad habits picked up in school

Almost all the habits listed above can be started by your child on their own but then there are some pretty annoying habits you find your child almost developed over night. Guess what, they most likely picked it up from school! When children get to school, they’re exposed to a multitude of bad habits and frankly speaking these habits are almost inevitable for some children. Young children are impressionable, and can be easily influenced by other children. Some include: Cursing, talking back, giving dramatic sighs (sometimes rolling their eyes), lying, copying homework, disgusting table habits and obsessed with dressing up all the time!

Causes of habits?

The causes of habits are unknown but due to their repetitive nature, we can deduce that they serve a soothing or comforting process for the brain. Some adults are also known to these self-comforting habits during times of stress: sucking on pen or pencil tips, biting their finger nails or fingering their hair. 

Some habits occur in children because they are either bored or stressed.  Children resort to entertaining themselves with some habits. For example, some children suck or play with their hair while watching TV or doing nothing at all.

Some habits start for practical reasons but keep going when the practical reasons have gone. For example, young children with a cut often peel off the skin on their cut during its healing process. But then some children do not stop even after the wounds have healed or they even go the extreme by causing injury to themselves just so they are able to peel. Another example is that of children who pick their noses to clear them when they have a cold and continue even after the cold has gone. Such children have probably developed a habit.

Some behaviour however, might look like a habit but have an underlying medical condition. If for example a child starts pulling or hitting an ear and is also cranky, it might be because he has an ear infection or is probably teething.

How to break bad habits

Most habits go away by themselves but some need a little help from parents especially if they prevent him from doing other activities or are becoming embarrassing to him and you, his parents. For example, sucking on thumb is almost normal and very common and should end with time, but if your child continues for an extended period of time, then a little help wont be out of place.

  • Try to find why your child is engaged in such habits, if it’s to help with boredom or when he’s just watching TV, then try keeping his hands busy during such times, let him try playing with a toy during this time.
  • Gently remind your child about his habits. Let him know it’s not nice to chew on your sleeves and so on. As much as you find it irritating, try to control yourself and not shout at him every time he does it.
  • You could try a bitter-tasting compound if your child sucks on his thumb or fingers. Note that this doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a shot as it is simple to do.
  • Reward your child when you notice he hasn’t engaged in the behaviour for an extended period.
  • 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 hear your words clearly when your fingers aren’t in your mouth’.

Getting help for habits

At certain ages some habits could become a problem. For example, at age 3, finger sucking can get in the way of teeth development. You can speak with a dentist if you’re unsure about what to do.

If you feel anxiety might be the reason behind a habit, you might need to seek professional help to deal with the cause of the anxiety.

Children with special needs might have more habits than typically developing children. You might need professional help for such.


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. 



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