The Magic Word to Break Your Kids of Unwanted Habits


how to help your child stop sucking her thumb

As parents, I think we can all agree on one totally objective fact: our kids are perfect. 

But within that realm of perfection, there may be a few itsy-bitsy behaviors we find less than desirable. In many cases, they can be chalked up to a certain age or stage of development (the toddler tantrum, the “three-nager” sass, etc.). But sometimes they form into unwanted habits that do our kids a disservice and turn us into tiresome nags.

For one of my kids, it’s the thumb. It found its way into her mouth in utero (I have the ultrasound photos to prove it) and has remained a frequent visitor throughout the five years since. 

When she was under 3, it was kind of cute and certainly commonplace among her peers. After that, the habit seemed to die down for others while it ramped up in my daughter. What was once mainly confined to bedtime or long car rides was now happening on and off throughout the day—clearly without her even realizing.

It didn’t take long before the phrase, “Sweetie, thumb!” or something similar became an unpleasant refrain in our household, and it was clearly starting to build some resentment in our daughter. I was also aware that using the word “thumb” in public was drawing even more attention to her habit. 

I never wanted to shame my daughter for the behavior, I just wanted to help her recognize (and eventually break) this habit—one that was putting god-knows-what germs in her mouth, setting her up for prolonged future orthodontic interventions, and making her vulnerable to teasing at school when she got older.  

That’s when our pediatrician helped us find “Popsicle.” After hearing my concerns at my daughter’s annual checkup, the doctor assured me that they were valid but that it was unrealistic to nip the thumb sucking in the bud all at once. Instead, she suggested, my daughter should feel free to suck her thumb whenever she was in her bed, but at other times should choose a word we could all use as a gentle reminder when we saw her sucking. 

Our doctor had used this strategy (and continues to use it) for one of her own children who has a tendency to slouch. When she catches him hunched over, she says, “Chocolate,” and he reflexively straightens up. 

My daughter chose “Popsicle” for her word (I have a feeling 99% of kids in these scenarios pick some type of snack food), and she was actually excited to put the plan into action. I think by selecting the reminder word, she felt a sense of ownership over this new approach, plus it clearly came as a relief that she wouldn’t have to try to quit her thumb cold turkey. 

We haven’t yet exited thumb-sucking territory, but we have seen a noticeable improvement, and we no longer feel like the bad guys every time we call her attention to what she’s doing. (It’s hard to have unpleasant feelings when saying or hearing the word “popsicle” so that certainly helps.)

Helping our kids give up their unwanted habits isn’t one of the fun perks of parenting, but it’s part of the job description nonetheless. And someday when my daughter takes the oath at her swearing-in ceremony for the Supreme Court, I will accept a little credit for her thumb being nowhere near her mouth. 




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