Bad Habits

My 7 year old son has recently developed a very annoying and rude habit of spitting. I believe it started when we were enjoying the great outdoors. Something – the sand, or the sensation of a bug in the mouth, or the pungent smell of kelp roasting in the sun, caused him to spit from time to time during our full day outing. Recently he would again spit when we were outdoors and has even done it in the house a few times. I have asked him to be conscious of his newly formed habit, but he just hasn’t been able to stop. How does one go about breaking a child of a bad personal habit like nail biting, sucking on the ends of long hair, or thumb sucking?

“Bad” is in the eyes of the beholder. Most of these habits don’t harm the child, but they can be very irritating to other people, particularly adults. So your first step is recognizing that your own irritation and embarrassment has to be dealt with, as well as your son’s behavior. There is nothing intrinsically bad about spitting. Adult men do it a lot, and in many cultures it’s socially acceptable. I find it disgusting myself, but that’s my problem. A spitter once told me that he found it disgusting that people actually swallow their phlegm instead of spitting it out! The reason you want your son to stop spitting is not because spitting is “bad,” but because you find it irritating, and perhaps embarrassing in front of other adults, as your son’s impolite behavior reflects badly upon you. So it helps to acknowledge this to your child. Telling him his habit is “bad” and blaming him will not help him become willing to overcome it.

The first step in changing any behavior is understanding it. Let’s think about why your son may be spitting. Your analysis of why he started gives a clue – it’s likely that something just doesn’t feel right in his mouth, and he’s trying to get it out. If you set aside your own irritation for a while, you may be able to ask him about it. Perhaps he has “post-nasal drip” or mild seasonal allergies, so his throat produces more mucus when he’s outside. Or perhaps he has a sore or irritated throat. The doctor can help with these problems. Or perhaps he’s just learned to pay attention to normal mouth and throat sensations which he doesn’t like, and to change those sensations by spitting. Or perhaps he observed a grown man spitting and thought it looked “cool.” If you show willingness to listen and understand about your son’s habit, he’ll be more willing to change it than if you express your annoyance.

I have noticed three different kinds of irritating habits in children, and each one requires a different treatment :

1) Many personal habits, such as nail biting, scab picking, pimple picking, and head scratching, are done to make the body more comfortable or to remove flaws. The child needs to be given some other way to deal with the problem they perceive in their body before they can just give up their habit. Mouthwash for a spitting habit, nail clipper or nail scissors for a nail biting habit, astringent lotion for pimples, or bandages over scabs, can make a difference.

2) Other habits, such as hair sucking and thumb sucking, are comforting, and are often engaged in when a child is tired or under stress. You need to pay attention to the child’s stress level and reduce it. Children need their comforting habits, but you can ask the child to substitute one habit for another if a particular habit is damaging to the body. Check with your dentist about thumb sucking. I took my daughter to the dentist at the age of five to discuss her thumb sucking, and to my great surprise he said it didn’t damage the permanent teeth at all. Masturbation in young children is sometimes a comforting habit, and is best dealt with by asking the child to do it only in his bedroom with the door closed, since it involves his “private” parts, so should be done in private.

3) A third category of habits are the “tics” – small jerks, clicks, or sounds which appear as “mental overflow” in some children when they are concentrating. In extreme form this tendency is called Tourette’s Syndrome, and can be treated with medication. In milder form it doesn’t really interfere with the child’s functioning, but may cause others to make fun of him. Habit substitution works best with tics – get the child to notice when he is performing his tic, and do another instead which is invisible and inaudible, such as snapping his toes.

If you’ve paid attention to the type of habit, and done what you can to remedy its cause, it is okay to ask your child to stop performing a certain habit just because it irritates you. But it’s fair play then for your child to ask you to stop engaging in habits that irritate him. Such things are better treated lightly than seriously. “I’ll promise to stop asking you to put a sweater on if you promise to stop spitting in my presence.” For habits which don’t harm the body, it’s helpful to point out to the child that they irritate other people as well as you, and embarrass you, so the child should perform them in private. Many habits in all three categories can be remedied by substituting another habit which is less visible and audible, and therefore less annoying.

Getting the child to actually notice when he’s performing the habit is an important part of the treatment. We usually aren’t aware when we’re doing such things. Counting is a good way of noticing. You can ask your son to count the number of times he spits (in public) over a one-hour period, and then together you can make a graph of it. Once you have a “baseline” graph, the goal will be to reduce the number of spits, with perhaps a reward when the number goes below a certain line. Reward improvement, not perfection. The motivation to get the reward will lead your child to begin noticing the unconscious behavior – and noticing it is half the battle.

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