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Use positive approach to address your preschooler’s bad habits

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In this article, you’ll find answers to questions like:

1. Is it just a phase?
2. Should I call the doctor?
3. How to break bad habits?

Are you annoyed your preschooler is still sucking his thumb?

Well, don’t worry about it until age 5, says Chris McGinnis, a psychologist with Boys Town South Florida.

Habits such as thumb-sucking seem like a rite of passage, though it’s perplexing for parents.

In fact, Sierra Boyce of Jupiter says her soon-to-be 2-year-old son seems to pick up a bad habit just about every day. “When he was younger, he would bang his head on things. Once he started moving around, he loved to poke the dogs in their eyes,” she says.

Luckily, most of these of quirks disappeared just about as fast as they came on, Boyce says. Except one: eating dirt.

“Anyone who knows my son knows he loves to eat dirt,” she says. “My neighbors are no longer fazed by the sight of my boy with a ring of black mud around his lips, nor are his grandmothers, the mailman, the UPS guy, my friends. It used to worry me because it seemed strange . . . but he genuinely seems to enjoy it.”


Should she be worried? Probably not, says Kathryn Tancig, program director of Healthy Families Palm Beach. “Most of the time, these behaviors are just phases or habits — not serious medical problems —and the child typically outgrows them,” she says. 

However, Tancig advises parents to turn to their pediatrician if they're concerned.

Also, she says, you may want to consider changing how you respond to your child's bad habit.

“Yelling, calling attention to the habit and punishment do not usually work to stop the behavior, but praising the absence of the behavior, using positive rewards and patience are likely to help,” she says. 

McGinnis agrees: “It can be a powerful behavioral shaping tool.”


Most habits don’t necessarily signal something is wrong, he says. But, for example, if a child eats dirt regularly, he too recommends talking with the pediatrician, “especially if the child is a picky eater, as this can indicate the child may not be getting enough iron.”

It’s also time to act if your children start hurting themselves. “Head banging that causes harm in any way should be looked at by the pediatrician and, although rare, it could also be indicative of a neurodevelopmental disorder, which is important to catch as early as possible,” McGinnis says. “As for bed-wetting, almost half of all children still bed-wet occasionally at the age of 3, with 10 percent or so bed-wetting still at the age of 10. All bed-wetting resolves on its own over time, so the question is when is the family ready to address it?”

One secret trick to halting a bad habit? Quality sleep, McGinnis says. It boosts cooperation and overall functioning. “Once we help improve sleep and cooperation, then we move on to other concerns like picky eating, problems with the homework routine, anxiety, bad habits, bed-wetting and others,” he says.


  • Calmly explain what you don't like about the behavior and why. This approach can be used with children as young as 3 or 4 to help increase awareness of the problem. Say something like, "I don't like it when you bite your nails. It doesn't look nice. Could you try to stop doing that?" The next time it happens, don't scold or lecture. Punishment, ridicule or criticism could have the opposite effect by causing the behavior to increase.
  • Involve your child in the process of breaking the habit. If your 5-year-old comes home crying from kindergarten because the other children mocked his thumb- sucking, understand this is a way of asking for help. Parents can ask their children what they think they could do to stop the habit or if they want to stop the habit. Brainstorm ways to break the habit together.
  • Suggest alternative behaviors. For example, if your child is a nail-biter, say, "Let's wiggle our fingers," instead of "Don't bite your nails." This will increase awareness of the habit and may serve as a reminder. To occupy your child's attention, provide a distraction, such as helping you in the kitchen or working on a craft.
  • Reward and praise self-control. For example, allow your child to use nail polish if she lets her nails grow instead of biting them off. Or, when your son refrains from sucking his thumb, reinforce that with praise and give him a sticker or other small prize.
  • Be consistent in rewarding good behavior. If you fail to notice good behavior, it will disappear over time. The new, positive habit must be firmly established before the old one will disappear.
  • Be patient. It takes time for the alternative behavior to replace the bad one. For the best success, motivate your children to break the habit. And be supportive!


Dr. Chris McGinnis, psychologist, Boys Town South Florida
• Kathy Tancig, Healthy Families program director, Families First Palm of Beach County


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