Bad habits take on numerous forms over a child's life, and most of these unwanted behaviors can prove quite the challenge to eliminate. From thumb-sucking and nail-biting to phone addiction and complaining, we talk to experts to find out what parents can do to put a stop to patterns — at all ages — that drive them crazy.

By Topher Gauk-Roger
June 30, 2020 09:30 AM
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No matter what parents do or say, there are certain behaviors children struggle to change. These unwanted tendencies can take as much work to eliminate for parents as they do for kids. Bad habits may take on different forms as children get older, but each age group offers their own set of grievances for parents.

According to psychologist and parenting expert Reena B. Patel, the work is usually worth it in the long run. "Many unwanted behaviors can be reduced and eliminated in children, by use of consistency, specific positive reinforcement, and unconditional support," Patel tells PEOPLE. We talked to Patel, as well as pediatrician and author Dr. James Sears MD, to get tips on some of the most-discussed bad habits among different age groups — and what parents can do to fix the behaviors before they get out of hand.

TODDLERS

When children are very young, parents often have to pick their battles. Sears explains that much of this has to do with kids having to yet to develop logic or their own feelings about things.

"Toddlers are at a stage where they are learning independence and everything is 'Me do it,' " Sears tells PEOPLE. "I think it's important to allow them to explore — as long as it is safe. This is a stage where parents tend to hover over every little aspect of their lives, and it can be too much."

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Children at this stage are hearing the word "no" a lot, so parents should be wary about overusing those dreaded two letters to avoid minimizing their impact. "By me constantly telling them 'no' to all the small stuff — like 'No, you can’t hold the can of soup,'  'Stop throwing the tiny box of Jell-O into the cart,' 'You can’t grab for the rubber spatula' (it’s unbreakable anyway!) – when it came to something actually important, like them running ahead into the parking lot, their ears were numb to the word 'no,' " Sears continues. "I found that by saying 'yes' to things that weren't that big of a deal, it made my occasional 'no' that much more powerful – like a loud 'STOP!' as they were approaching something dangerous."

Thumb sucking

Patel says thumb sucking is often used as a coping mechanism and that the best way to fix the issue if to find a replacement, like a stuffed animal or a small blanket. "First identify when your child engages in thumb sucking and what is happening, i.e. when they are bored, when they are upset, when they're about to go to sleep," suggest Patel. "Talk to your child about it. Help them understand that when they are ready to stop, you will be there to help. You want to get buy-in and encourage them that you are in this with them."

Patel also recommends isolating times of the day to practice no thumb sucking. "Start small and with an opportunity of success, and pair this success with a positive phrase or a sticker added to a sticker chart," she recommends. "Children this age cannot wait an entire week to get their big reward. Start in increments. The higher the motivation, the higher chance your child will not engage in the unwanted behaviors."

Nose picking

With nose picking, find out why the child does the act in the first place, i.e. out of stress or boredom or as a nervous habit. Sears believes the best tactic in this case is to redirect the child's hand when necessary. "When I see a finger in a nose, I go in a quick double-high-five or something else to get the hands involved in a game – all without even mentioning the nose-picking," he shares.

Patel agrees that parents should distract and engage the child's hands in an activity that keeps them from touching their nose. "Explain in a developmentally appropriate way that nose-picking is not a clean habit and can not only cause their nose to be infected, it can also spread germs and make people sick, even themselves," adds Patel.

Not washing hands

Hand washing is a trait children need to learn by example, whether it be by seeing their parents doing it consistently or watching online videos on the matter. "Show a visual demo of what germs are. YouTube has many; I like the water and pepper ones," Patel suggests. "Children are concrete learners and the more they see the more they understand."

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She also stresses continuing positive reinforcement by creating a reward chart and being consistent with praise when your child performs a job well done. "Set a timer for 20 seconds or make a song that goes along with the practice of hand washing."

YOUNG KIDS

As children get older, past habits may return. This is why Patel says it's important to focus on celebrating children for doing the right things instead of just punishing them when they're in the wrong.

"Punishment does not work over time, but teaching children what you expect and praising the better choices is what helps motivate positive behaviors," says Patel. "We all can change our behaviors with the right incentive and motivation. This is why positive reinforcement charts and incentives should be paired with what behaviors we want to see in our children."

Nail biting

The consensus on nail biting is that this habit is less an act of boredom, but instead a self-soothing behavior resulting from stress and anxiety. "Often, the solution comes from addressing what is making the child nervous," suggests Sears. "This behavior also can have actual medical consequences like skin sores or ruined nails, so I do try to help break this habit by keeping the hands busy, using some bitter nail polish, and keeping the focus on whatever is causing the child stress."

Patel agrees that offering an alternative outlet is best, like 'chewelry' or hand-engaging activities like kinetic sand, play dough, beads or crafts. "If you have identified that your child bites their nails out of worry, use a worry stone," Patel recommends. "They might like to gently stroke a smooth 'worry stone' that they can keep in their pocket, squeeze a small stress ball, or fidget with Silly Putty. The sensory input is a great replacement to nail biting."

Complaining

Everyone complains, but it can be a struggle having young children keep their complaints to a minimum. As Patel explains, it's important to gain an understanding of the circumstances surrounding a child's complaints. "Identify when your child complains the most and write down exactly what that behavior looks like," suggests Patel. "This helps you isolate what specific behaviors to change and helps identify what words and actions you want to replace it with."

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According to Sears, it's about twisting the complaints so kids don't get the response they initially desire. “ 'I can’t understand you when you use a whining voice, let's say it in a different way so I can understand what you are trying to say' is often a great response from a parent," suggests Sears. "Do it in a calm voice, and the child will usually calm down themselves. Another trick is to find something positive in the thing they are complaining about, such as when a child complains about a long car ride, respond with, 'Let's think of all the songs we could sing.' "

Patel also says it's important to engage in role-play and give children more appropriate responses. "Have them say, 'I know I didn't want to have meatloaf for dinner, but maybe tomorrow we can have pizza,' instead of, 'Why do we have to eat meatloaf, yuck.' "

Not eating vegetables

Getting kids to eat the nutritious foods on their plate can be a nightly challenge at dinner time, but it isn't impossible. For Sears, there are three very important steps to get kids on the vegetable train: start early, lead by example and make it fun. "If they are given vegetables as babies and toddlers, they are more likely to continue eating them," says Sears. "Try carrot wheels or broccoli trees, pretend to be dinosaurs and eat the top of the trees. The more they see you eating them, the more likely they will too."

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Patel suggests starting small. "Try three baby carrots instead of six, or use a dip to complement the veggies," she recommends. "Discuss the importance of vegetables and how the nutrients help you become strong to play and help your mind grow to learn."

TWEENS & TEENS

Children have a good sense of critical thinking by their teen years, and as Sears points out, this is the time when parents are truly helping their kids form life skills. "You can try to help the teen think beyond the immediate moment, and instead focus on future benefits of good choices," he advises. "Learn to use whatever currency is important to the teen as a natural consequence to the problem: phone time, time with friends, or earning the right to use the car."

Cursing

Teens know what words they should or shouldn't say, and know when to use them to push their parents' buttons. As a result, it's important to up the stakes so children know there are still punishments for not listening. "Create a swear jar, and place a dime or quarter from their savings every time they swear," suggests Patel. "Identify when and where your child swears most, and see if you can create a different coping tool. Squeeze a stress ball, take three deep breaths, and walk away from the situation as an example."

Sears says parents should lead by example and demonstrate the importance of word choice when among groups. "Explain that it might be fine to do it among friends, but insist that proper etiquette is followed in certain situations," he says. "Offer additional choices in words that are similar in emotion, you can even say 'beep,' but the goal is to have words that are socially and age-appropriate," adds Patel.

Phone addiction

Parents are often as attached to their phones as children, so this is one habit that may require development as a family. For Sears, it's about creating experiences that will keep everyone off their devices. "We don’t really look at total time on the phone, but we do insist that there are times that the phone isn’t used, such as meal times, bed time, and short car rides," he says. "We do the car rides to get the kids' attention out the window and see the world around them — and hope that habit will persist once they start driving alone. With these 'No Phone Zones,' it gives us the quality family time that is important, and then allows us to not be constantly telling the kids to get off their phones the rest of the time."

Texting
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According to Patel, it's also important for teens to understand that having a phone is a luxury instead of an essential requirement. "Discuss with your teen that having a phone is a privilege not a necessity," says Patel. "Privileges can be taken away and put on break." Patel also stresses the significance of understanding how life without a device can have a positive effect on a teenager's well-being. "No cell phone use 30 minutes before bed to create better sleep habits," she suggests. "Practice digital break exercise, for example skipping Snapchat for a week, and then document how your child felt with this pause: more time, more connections, confidence, etc."

Not focusing on schoolwork

Schoolwork only increases as children get older, as does the significance of staying on top of it. As Patel points out, there are two key components of school success — self-discipline and grit — and attention to tasks is a life skill that can start when children are toddlers. "Create a workplace or study zone with no distractions to help your child focus, and keep their cell phone outside the area," suggests Patel. "Set up an area for completed work, so your teen can see what has been completed to feel a sense of accomplishment."

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Patel also recommends implementing movement breaks while teens are working, and having them start with their least-favorite assignment or subject first.

For Sears, it's about pointing out that there are consequences in life for not staying on task. "We tell our teen that if grades are good, then bedtimes and phone limits are less important," he says. "Our youngest is almost 15 and is talking about what kind of car she wants to get.  She is also looking forward to the independence that a driver’s license can bring.  We often remind her that operating a vehicle takes responsibility, and by her showing us that she can take care of little things like putting away her dirty dishes, we are more likely to believe that she can take care of the big things — like using the family car."