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Nose-picking can really drive parents up the wall. The typical story: an otherwise pleasing child develops the definitely not pleasing habit of nose-picking. The parents do not understand why the habit has started, are annoyed by the habit, and want it to stop.

Gesell pointed out years ago that tensional outlets, such as nail-biting and nose-picking, are most likely to occur when the child is under pressure. Pressure can come from one of two directions, external or internal. External pressure occurs when something which the child cannot yet produce is demanded of the child. Internal pressure happens when the child demands too much of itself. In either case the solution to reducing the tension is to lighten up.

Boredom is a great tension-producer, as is waiting around for something to happen. TV is called entertainment but it often results in both boredom and waiting around for something better to come on. Tensional outlets may peak during the child’s viewing time.

How does a “bad habit” such as nose-picking get started? The hand-to-face movement which starts at birth is very common in children and continues in adults. We all touch our mouths or face at times. (Just now while I was thinking about what to write, my index finger left the keyboard and pressed my top lip.)

In some school-age children the hand-to-face movement results in nail-biting, lip-pulling, or hair twisting; others may begin to pick their nose.

The first nose-pick no doubt occurs when the child is annoyed by the hardened or crusted contents of the nose and wishes to remove them. Unlike thumb-sucking, nose-picking requires a fair amount of hand coordination to be successful, so repetitive nose-picking is not seen much before age four or five.

Nose-picking is very common. It occurs in adults as well as children and in both sexes. Nose-picking is considered socially unacceptable in this and most, if not all, cultures. Everything that comes out of the body like the contents of the nose or bowel, spit, and menstrual blood are all considered unclean. The nose-picker is thought to exhibit personal uncleanliness and therefore is “disgusting”.

Because all of us have noses which need cleaning I would venture to say that nose-picking may be universal especially after a cold. However, older children and adults learn to do it in private or when they think no one is looking.

Though parents may be driven crazy by thumb-sucking or nail-biting in the school-aged child, repetitive nose-picking is the least acceptable of all such behaviors and the behavior that parents most want to stop. But young children have not yet learned social conventions so they pick away, and may even eat what they have gleaned, without realizing what the adults are fussing about.

Although such a behavior may start randomly, it could continue because of how the parents behave. Scolding, nagging, shouting, and punishing not only fail to work but also seem to “fix” a behavior in place that might have just gone away by itself if parents did not call attention to it. However, parents do not have to put up with a behavior that they feel is repulsive.

What do I suggest parents do with the child who repetitively picks at his or her nose?

• Don’t call attention to the behavior.
• Focus your attention on the child, not the habit.
• When you see the behavior, get down to the child’s level, look right at the child, lovingly put your hands on the child’s shoulders and in a quiet voice say, “Josh, people don’t like to see nose-picking. If you must pick your nose, do it in private.” This is very different from. “Josh, how many times do I have to tell you to get out of your nose. You’ve developed a filthy habit!” When you do it right, you are focusing on the child (not the habit), speaking to the child privately (not ridiculing the child in front of others), teaching the child that nose-picking is undesirable (without implying that the child is filthy), and giving the child a way of dealing with nose-picking in a grown-up way by going out of the room.
• You will probably have to remind your child many times before it “clicks”, but each time focus on the child not on the nose.
• Because crusted mucus in the nose is annoying, when the child has a cold, try to keep crusting at a minimum. Humidifiers may help a little bit. You can also try a tiny amount of Vaseline on your pinky and gently rim the edge of each nostril.

We all have a responsibility to socialize our children so that they are acceptable to the society in which they live. The challenge is to do it in such a way as to promote self-esteem which in itself relieves tension which in turn can diminish the need for tensional outlets.