Question: My child has a nervous habit that is driving me crazy. I’ve done everything I can think of to put a stop to it, but so far nothing has worked. Can you help me? 


If it’s any consolation to you, we don’t believe that this behaviour has any long-term significance. At the same time, we understand why you find it irritating. We’re also keenly aware that behaviour of this kind can become a serious social problem if other youngsters begin to ridicule a child for indulging in it. It’s not surprising, then, that you have reasons for wanting to discourage it. 

Be intentional or do nothing

We usually advise parents in your situation to refrain from making an issue of the objectionable habit until they are prepared to make an all-out, concerted effort to help their youngster break it. In other words, leave it alone until you’re ready to take action – then pull out all the stops. There is a good reason for this. Quite often, parents have a tendency to talk a great deal about problems of this nature without taking decisive steps toward changing the behaviour. They drag the process out until a child develops a sensitivity about his nervous habit and begins to feel "shamed" in the process. When this happens, the situation becomes all the more difficult to handle.

Once you’re ready to move ahead, we think it’s a good idea to start by attempting to understand the emotions that may be behind the annoying habit. Ask your child, "What are you thinking about when you twist your hair (or bite your nails or pull your eyebrow)? How does it make you feel?" In most instances such behaviour is self-soothing or self-calming in intent – in other words, it’s a mechanism for dealing with stress or anxiety. If this is the case, attempts to extinguish the habit will be relatively ineffective until the underlying issues are addressed. 

Understand the underlying stress

Should you determine that the stress or anxiety underlying the habit is fairly serious in nature – if it’s a symptom of dysfunction in the home or problems at school – we highly recommend that you seek professional counselling for your child and yourself. Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department can help you in this area. Our counsellors are available to speak with you Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800. They’d be happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone, and they’re also prepared to provide you with a list of qualified Christian family therapists practicing in your area. It would be their pleasure to assist you in any way they can. 

What you can do

If, on the other hand, your child’s nervous habit can’t be traced to anything meriting such intensive treatment, we’d suggest that there are a number of other ways you can tackle the problem of extinguishing it. At this point it’s important to state that we don’t endorse some of the negative approaches that have been utilized in the past; we take the view that it is wrong to spank or otherwise punish a child for indulging in these habits. It’s never wise to call attention to the behaviour you’re trying to eliminate. If you’re constantly saying, "Don’t do that!," you’re probably only making things worse. A far more effective approach involves coming up with replacements or distractions. Give the child options. Provide other ways for him to occupy his hands. Get out some modelling clay. Encourage him to paint or draw or play a game. Buy him a squeeze ball that he can manipulate when he feels the need to indulge. You might also try encouraging abstinence with small units of reward like candy, gum or toys. The possibilities are almost endless. Whatever the specific approach you adopt, persistence and consistency will be the keys to success.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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