Thumb sucking

Question: How can I get my 3 year old boy to stop sucking on his finger (versus his thumb). He sucks on it when he is tired or for security (like after he’s been disciplined). Is this something that will go away on its own?
– Kelley

Answer: Teaching your son alternatives to finger-sucking is an on-going process where he is the one who will actually choose the time to stop. I can reassure you that most children will stop sucking thumbs and fingers by 5 years of age. You want to avoid a strong emotional “push/pull” about his behavior. You don’t want him to need “more” finger-sucking and you don’t want him to have to sneak his comfort.

Start by helping your son to identify his feelings. When you say aloud, in very simple terms, what you think your son is feeling, you are showing him how to “read” his emotions. You are giving him the foundation for “emotional literacy” – how to read and act on feelings in the most effective way. We are not born knowing how to do this. For better or for worse, most people learn from their role models not by learning skills.

Build your son’s awareness that he is sucking his finger. When you see your son sucking his fingers, let him know without any judgment, “I see you are sucking your finger, I think you must be tired”. After a discipline correction, say “I think you feel sad when mommy scolds you, I know you didn’t mean to break the rule but when you do, (this) happens.” Be careful, however, in discipline situations not to get sidetracked by teaching emotions. Discipline is about teaching the right choices and the consequences of wrong choices. You can give voice to what your child feels but then allow for your 3-5 minutes of “discipline” (finish cleaning up the spilled juice or putting the toys where they belong). You’ll have plenty of other times to work on emotional growth.

Try some new forms of expression. Once you and he have decided to try to stop the finger-sucking, you can put a fun band-aid on his sucking-finger as a reminder that it hurts his finger and his teeth. Figure out what else can he do when he feels like sucking his finger? He can “use his words” to say what he feels. He can think of other things that will help him to feel better. These will change depending on the situation – go for a walk (with you), talk to his teddy bear, sit on the rocking chair, or build a really big cave for grumpy boys to hide in.

As your son gets older, he will be able to understand that sucking on his finger is bad for his teeth. You can ask the dentist to mention it in your next visit and talk about how important it is for son to take care of his teeth every day. Children want to do the right thing and they like to be in charge of themselves. But just like adult smokers, knowing the facts and being emotionally ready can be two different things.

The biggest factor for emotional readiness is often peer pressure. Children are usually ready to change the behavior when other children start to make comments. School, friends, and older siblings can be the biggest motivators because, while it’s inappropriate for adults to point out “baby” behaviors, children will. It won’t take long to stop when you son wants to make the change.

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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