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Note: this is related to How can I encourage my son (age 8) to stop sucking his thumb? but not a duplicate, as this case isn't about sucking the thumb but rather putting the finger (second finger, not thumb) in the mouth without sucking it.


My 8 (soon to be 9) years old son started a new habit not long ago. Whenever he's in "deep thought", he's shoving a finger into his mouth. He does not "suck" the finger, just keeping it there while he's thinking.

So far attempts to make him stop failed, he just keeps doing it. Wife tried the "bad cop" way, by shouting and threatening, I tried "good cop" way by explaining it's not good for his health and teeth and offering prize if he'll stop, but nothing really had any effect so far.

What can we do to stop this new habit?

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  • There are substances that used to be used to stop kids sucking their thumbs - they tasted bitter and unpleasant. A quick google didn't come up with any though, so maybe they aren't used any more.
    – Rory Alsop
    Sep 1 at 7:52
  • @Rory found one, but still, wonder if there are other ways. Sep 1 at 8:28
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As you've noticed telling a kid what they shouldn't do isn't very effective without any real fear factor. If a child is about to put his hands into an open flame and you "aggressively" (without hurting them, of course) pull them away and tell them it's dangerous with an obvious look of fear on your own face, they are not likely to try it again. That isn't really the right aproach to deal with someone putting a finger in their mouth when thinking.

A far more effective way to make children stop doing some habit is to replace it with something you do approve of. For example, if a child is being bullied by peers and their usual response is to hit them out of frustration, you can instead teach the child to stick out their hand and say (or shout): "Stop! I don't like that." which for small children is usually enough to end the conflict without someone getting physically hurt.

For your son, you could try teaching him to just place his finger on top of his lips instead of inside his mouth. Or put an open fist under his chin showing him a picture of the statue "the thinker" as an example. Preferably something you do yourself when thinking so that he can see you do it every once in a while in the right context.

Start by calmly explaining this at a neutral moment (when he is not already agitated or really tired and actually listening to what you are saying). Then when you catch him doing it the next time, you start by calmly forcing him to take his finger out of his mouth and doing what you want instead.

This does not always have to be a fight. You can try to do it playfully too. For example, when he has his finger inside his mouth, you just place your own extended finger on top of his mouth and wait for him to realise what you are doing. If he pulls away somewhat annoyed too fast for it to have effect, you just show the movement he should do on yourself. If needed use your other hand to point to what you are doing so it's clear for him what he should notice.

Given that it's probably an unconscious habit already by now, it will take a lot of repetition reminding him of what to do. Learning new (better) habits isn't something that happens overnight.

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  • Thanks, those are really good ideas. Sep 16 at 7:51
  • "if a child is being bullied by peers and their usual response is to hit them out of frustration, you can instead teach the child to stick out their hand and say (or shout): "Stop! I don't like that." which for small children is usually enough to end the conflict without someone getting physically hurt." From my memories of being bullied as a child, something like that is more likely to make the bullies laugh at you and then bully you even harder.
    – nick012000
    Sep 22 at 7:26
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If it's an unconscious habit and he is willing to cooperate in breaking it, something to give a noticeable or mildly undesirable texture to his finger may be enough of a reminder. An adhesive bandage comes to mind, as they are generally sterile and you can cheaply replace them any time they get dirty.

It may also help to give him something else to do with his hands and/or mouth when thinking. There are a wide variety of fidget toys available for hands, and for mouth, sugarless gum is a good solution at home, although probably not encouraged at school.

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  • Gum might cause teeth problems, even without sugar, from what I remember reading in the past, but thanks for the other ideas, they're good and solid. :) Sep 22 at 6:58

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