How to break childrens' unsavoury habits

Our tips on how to get your children to behave themselves and stop unsavoury habits forever.

Thumb-sucking is common among young children and often they don’t realise they are doing it. Photo by iStockphoto
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"More, more, I want more mummy, mummeeeee." It doesn't matter how many times you tell your child, there are some habits which seem impossible to break. Be it whining, nose-picking, or tale-telling, they're equally unsavoury. If star charts and the naughty step are having little effect in your family, here's how to get to the root of that bad habit and be rid of it forever.


The first step with any bad habit is to address the real reason why the child is misbehaving in the first place. "It could be that they are seeking attention, they are tired, hungry, bored, or that their parents are expecting too much of them," says Carmen Benton, a parenting educator at Lifeworks Counselling and Development ( "Try taking your child on to your lap and giving them a big hug without mentioning the whining at all," advises Benton. "If it's attention that they really want, giving them a hug will fill the need they have and you will both feel better."

Sometimes children whine because they've learnt it gets them what they want. In this instance, try encouraging your child to ask for what they want. Teach them by saying: "Use words." If neither of these approaches stem the whine, switch to humour. Say: "Sorry I can't hear you, there is a bug buzzing in my ear" and try to swat it away. "What you hope is that your child will be taken by surprise, laugh and then ask for what they want," says Benton.

By the time your child reaches seven or eight, their weapon of choice will probably be manipulation. "They can whine a lot, and the behaviour becomes more varied and subsequently harder to deal with," says Jeremy Todd, the chief executive of Family Lives in London. "The same principle applies, though, try to get to the bottom of what they are feeling, spotting the link between the behaviour, emotion and needs. Acknowledge that, and listen - really listen, as this is the bit parents often miss - to what is bothering them, and then tell them clearly what behaviour you find unacceptable and how it makes you feel."


Tattling allows a child to get one-up on another child, or to gain favour in the eyes of his parent or teacher. On the plus side, it shows that your child understands the rules and knows right from wrong. Often children tell tales because they simply lack the skills to solve their own problem - and it's a better solution than throwing a punch. As a parent, you need to teach your child problem solving skills.

"Your job is to raise capable children," says Bill Corbett, the author of Love, Limits & Lessons. "To do that, they need to take accountability for the problem. Ninety-nine per cent of the problem is emotionally based — they feel left out or angry — and a parent can help them develop the emotional intelligence to deal with it by directing him to talk about the feelings. Generally, with repeat tattling, you just say, 'Really? Wow!' Most parents have gone overboard in solving problems for their kids — we've raised a generation of kids who say, 'I can't do it myself, you do it for me'.

"Children need to know they have the right to tell you anything, but that you have the right to take action or not. Sometimes it helps to ask: 'Are you telling me this to get someone in to trouble, or to get someone out of trouble?'"

Forgetting manners

If you don't want to come home to a child who won't look up from the TV to say hello, the best approach is to set a good example. If you always greet the family and bid them goodbye, your kids will start to pick up on your habits around the age of two. It's particularly important to model good manners when you're addressing them, for example: "Please can you come to the table now." And when your child responds quickly, make sure you show your appreciation. "Thank you for coming so quickly."

Sometimes, it's easier to be down on our children and reprimand them when they forget their manners than to praise them when they remember. "Just recently, I've made a habit of always saying 'well done' to Ellie when she says 'please' or 'thank you'," says Alan Bruton, a parent living in Dubai. "I've explained that people are more likely to do what you want them to, and be happier about it, if you approach them in the right way. It's only been a few weeks, but this approach has really made a difference."


We might gasp in horror when our child tells a half-truth, but who doesn't bend the truth a little sometimes? Indeed, most people fib or stretch the truth when they fear they are going to get into trouble. It can be easy to overreact and call your child a liar, but labelling won't help and it's important to remember that who your child is now, is not who your child will be forever. They are on a learning journey and might well be lying to protect themselves from judgement or criticism.

Give some thought to how you are communicating with your child. Don't set them up by asking a question you know they will be tempted to answer with a fib, such as, "Have you tidied up your room yet?"

"Instead, ask them questions which invite them to come up with a solution rather than allocating blame, for example, 'What is your plan for cleaning up your room?'" suggests Benton.

Most importantly, your child needs to learn that it is safe to tell the truth within their family and that as parents, you will love them unconditionally. "Sometimes I tell my children about times when I've found it difficult to tell the truth, but that I chose to anyway, despite the consequences," says Claire Jones in Abu Dhabi, mother to Chloe and Oliver. "It lets them know that I'm not perfect and that I struggle sometimes, but it's really important to be honest."


Thumb-sucking typically starts in the first few months of life. Many babies outgrow it well before their first birthday, and most stop by the age of five due to peer pressure. Sucking has a soothing, calming effect and often helps children get to sleep. However, it's a problem when the permanent teeth start coming in, around age five, because it can alter the shape of the child's teeth. "Take your child to a dentist and ask them to explain the harm of thumb-sucking and the need to stop," advises Benton. "It is important to have your child's agreement to stop as part of the solution. Then encourage your child to give up, rather than hound them," advises Benton. If possible, try to adopt a teamwork approach: "I have a secret sign that I've agreed with Chloe to use if I catch her with her thumb in her mouth," says Claire Jones. "I know she doesn't even realise she's doing it sometimes." Remember, your child needs a lot of encouragement to stop this habit, not a lot of punishment. "Children do better when they feel better," adds Benton.

If all else fails, stick to the golden rules: don't give in to your child, bribe inappropriately, make the goals too high, or forget to praise and have fun. Do set clear boundaries, listen to your child and tune into how they're feeling.