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Sometimes a harmless behavior in the child is viewed by the parents as a major problem. A good example is nail-biting.
I talked about nail-biting in a previous ParenTip stressing that nail-biting is NOT a ‘bad habit.” It is a tensional outlet like cigarette smoking in a grownup. It is harmless and does not mean your child is unduly stressed, just that the child is going through the process of growing up which can be a tough job.
Although common in young children, nail-biting is rare in adults which means, you guessed it, most kids get over this behavior. And they can get over it by themselves. They don’t need parental nagging, scolding, reminding, criticizing, name-calling (“You big baby, your fingers are always in your mouth!), threatening (“Your fingers will get infected and you’ll need a shot!”).
Recently, a parent asked me how she could learn to relax and ignore her child’s nail-biting. Wow! I realized that I have been talking to parents about what they could do for their child, totally ignoring what they could do for themselves.
Parents can become terribly stressed by repetitive behaviors in their children. I remember such feelings myself. The basis for parental stress when seeing a child repeatedly exhibit a behavior such as nail-biting is that parents immediately assume it is their fault. “If I were a good parent Mary Sue would be happy all the time and wouldn’t need to bite her nails!”
Then Stressed Parent pulls out all the stops to get Mary Sue to STOP BITING HER NAILS. Why? Because stress is uncomfortable so we want it to go away.
Unfortunately all the negative parental behaviors listed above stress out the child so a tensional outlet like nail-biting can actually increase.
My advice to parents who want to ignore a harmless repetitive behavior in their child has three parts.
Sometimes our brains don’t get it so we have to remind them. Keep telling yourself that nail-biting is your child’s problem. Your child owns the problem and the solution. It’s not your problem. You do not have it in your power to make the child stop. When we don’t have the power to do something we have to accept that we cannot do it. Duh!
I actually figured this out for myself many years ago when my daughter was in the habit of sucking her fingers (she never cared for her thumb). When I was feeling OK I ignored my daughter’s habit, but when I was tired or cross the sight of her sucking her fingers irritated me because I felt like such a failure as a parent. I attended a workshop in stress reduction out of curiosity and found it helpful in general. Then I realized that if I did my deep breathing and muscle relaxing and imaging I was not bothered when I saw my daughter’s fingers in her mouth. Eureka! Modifying behavior in Mother works better than trying to modify behavior in Child.
OK your brain is learning from your self-talk that it’s not your problem and you are learning how to reduce your stress. But when you see your child start chewing away you get those old I-have-to-do-something-to-stop-this-feeling. You need a REMINDER. Try the behavioral modification we sometimes use with children. Put a rubber band on YOUR wrist and snap it to remind YOU that nail-biting is a harmless habit and you need not interfere.
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