Michael Keaton spends several scenes in 1983’s “Mr. Mom” trying to convince his son Kenny to give up his “woobie,” a worn out security blanket the little boy carries with him nonstop.
He says, “I understand that you little guys start out with your woobies and you think they’re great … and they are, they are terrific. But pretty soon, a woobie isn’t enough. You’re out on the street trying to score an electric blanket, or maybe a quilt. And the next thing you know, you’re strung out on bedspreads, Ken. That’s serious.”
Keaton’s humorous wisdom eventually prevails, and together they burn the woobie in the fireplace.
Few parents are likely to have tried Keaton’s hilarious lines on their own children. But the concern about children’s security blankets is not limited to the movies.
Children who cling to certain habits, like sucking thumbs or biting nails, worry many parents, who wonder if other children will make fun of their kids’ behavior and whether these habits are a sign the little ones aren’t progressing developmentally. And, with habits like thumb sucking, parents worry about the potential for physical damage.
For some families these habits can become big issues and a source of stress for kids and adults alike. But with some patience and the right approach, parents may be able to help their little one breaks out of the habit, or may find a way to live with it until the child stops on his or her own.
Bend mom Jenny Board isn’t pushing her son Owen, 5, to stop sucking his thumb, but it is something she thinks about. Her dentist told her not to worry about the practice causing damage, so she isn’t concerned on that front for now.
Sometimes Owen tells Board he wants to stop sucking his thumb, but he still really likes doing it. Board says she knows he will make up his own mind and make the change. But waiting for him to be ready isn’t easy.
“Especially when I see other kids making fun of him, it breaks my heart,” said Board.
As the owner of two local child care centers, Board has plenty of experience with youngsters clinging to certain habits, like security blankets and pacifiers.
“They’re just not ready to let go of some things,” said Board.
She just helped her 312-year-old son, Brody, give up his pacifier. A binky fairy came and took it away, leaving behind a special toy.
Board says she could tell Brody was finally ready to let go of it. She says the key is basing decisions on each child’s temperament.
“Know your child and what works best for them,” said Board.
Security blankets, thumb-sucking and many other habits of young children serve a purpose, according to Kimball DiCero, a senior child development specialist at Isis Maternity in Massachusetts. These are “soothing habits.”
She says parents encourage kids to find a way to soothe themselves through pacifiers, blankets or other devices, and then at some point, those habits begin to annoy them.
“Psychologically, comfort it good,” said DiCero. “No on ever suffered from too much comfort.”
Sometimes, however, these behaviors can signify deeper issues for children.
Thumb-sucking and the like can be brought about by fear, anxiety or insecurity, according to New York psychologist Carl Arinoldo, author of “Essentials of Smart Parenting.”
Sometimes a child will regress to these habits when something very stressful is occurring, such as the birth of sibling, divorce or trouble at school. Arinoldo explains that children can have difficulty expressing their emotions, so instead they may seek comfort from physical things like thumb-sucking. Parents should consider whether the habit is persistent or if there has been a big change in the behavior. Arinoldo says parents should talk to their children and try to read the situation. Parents should think about how tense the household is, how the child is fitting in at school and other potential stressors. If these are present, parents should try to focus on those underlying issues rather than the outward behavior.
Time to change?
When and how parents should step in to try to change a child’s habit is a very subjective decision.
Physical issues associated with thumb-sucking can be a motivating factor. Bend dentist Dean Nyquist of Dentistry for Kidz regularly talks with parents and kids about thumb-sucking. He says some parents worry too much.
“Parents can be a little bit uptight,” said Nyquist.
Before age 3, he says, there is no need for worry. Starting at 3, Nyquist says, he likes to see the number of minutes per day begin to decrease and then stop altogether by the time permanent teeth begin to come in at age 5 or 6. There is a real risk, he says, for thumb-sucking to misshape jaws and move teeth. The roof of the mouth can move higher up, causing “teeth to collapse inward.” Nyquist says the impact is directly linked to the number of minutes children spend sucking their thumbs, as well as how aggressively they suck.
DiCero says thumb-sucking habits can create “big disadvantages in developing speech” because of the way the habit can reshape the mouth.
Nyquist has encountered some girls in their early teen years who still suck their thumbs for the soothing and security it provides. Nyquist said his son sucked his thumb until age 7 or 8.
Getting children to stop isn’t always easy. Nyquist tells parents it is like asking a someone to stop smoking; they have to want to change. If they don’t want to stop, you cannot make them, Nyquist says.
For children who want to break out of the habit, Nyquist says, there are a “whole variety of things you can do.” Kids can wear socks on their hands or mouth retainers or they can apply unsavory tasting products onto their thumbs.
Parents’ irritation or annoyance is another important factor to consider, according to Janet Price, a child development specialist with Education Development Center in Massachusetts.
“Different behaviors are challenging to different parents,” said Price. If parents really cannot stand a particular habit, be it nail-biting or carrying a security blanket, they may want to look at how to curb that behavior. Price says kids can pick up on the tension and negative feeling parents have, even if they aren’t sure the reason for it. Price also says parents’ negative feelings can explode later on.
The right approach
When thinking about what approach to take, DiCero says, parents don’t have to think about breaking their kids out of the habit. Instead, they can think about limiting the activity.
“It’s OK to say to kids, ‘there are limits,’” said DiCero.
For instance, the children in her classes are not allowed to use a pacifier while they are crawling or walking around. When they want to use the pacifier, the little ones have to sit in one particular spot.
Nyquist recommends a similar tactic in which parents ask that animals and blankets remain on a child’s bed. Anytime the youngsters need those things, they can go sit on their bed. Many children have a link between cuddling their stuffed animals and thumb sucking, so the less contact they have with the animals, the less likely they may be to suck their thumb.
When the child is asleep, Nyquist suggest parents slip the thumb out of the child’s mouth.
In general, Nyquist prefers for kids to suck on pacifiers over thumbs, because pacifiers can be removed and “thumbs are there forever.”
Arinoldo emphasizes parents ought to present a united front on this issue. If they decide to ignore a particular behavior, then both parents need to be consistent.
Unless the behavior is a symptom of a bigger issue, Arinoldo believes parents should try to ignore it. They can explain the negative effects of a particular habit, but then let it go. Parents can also try to substitute other behaviors, but without drawing attention to what they are doing. For instance, parents of a child who sucks his thumb might distract him with his favorite toy or book during a time he might otherwise suck his thumb.
“Give the child something to do in the process,” said Arinoldo.
He also suggests parents praise the child when he or she is not engaged in the habit.
“Parents really need to kind of be very logical about it and not get all bent out of shape,” said Arinoldo.
Price agrees parents should be careful not to overreact. Parents can end up creating a struggle, she says, when there might not need to be one.
Price says parents should ask themselves if they are OK with the behavior taking place at home and in public. If so, then the behavior is really not a problem and parents can wait for children to outgrow it. Price says parents need to acknowledge what a child gets out of a particular habit.
Parents need to recognize they are essentially “trying to take away what (kids) are using to calm themselves,” said Price.
Price also warns parents against trying to change too many behaviors at once, a practice she calls “doomed.” Instead, they should focus on one issue at a time.
She suggests parents think about finding a replacement for the habit or item they want the child to give up.
Price knows of one mother who told her daughter that Santa likes to receive children’s pacifiers when they turn 4.
Price says the little girl was very excited about the whole thing and giving up her pacifier became a positive experience. In contrast, Price cringes when she hears parents chastise their children about their behaviors, saying, “That’s what babies do” or “You’re just too old for this, stop it.”
Instead, Price suggests parents offer simple reasons such as: “You’re a big boy now and you don’t need the blanket anymore. What do you think?”
“A big mistake is they don’t connect behavior to meaning,” said Price. “It’s important to be respectful to the child. It breaks my heart to hear parents say, ‘that’s what babies do.’”