Handling Your Grandchildren's Worst Habits

When your grandchild's most unpleasant habits are on display in public, it can be embarrassing for you both

By Joanne Camas

Nose-picking. Hair-twirling. Shirt-chewing. Thumb-sucking.

Your preschool and early-grade grandchildren are adorable, but they're not perfect. If they're like most kids, they have carried some of their toddler habits into childhood, and they may display them at the worst times — such as when you're introducing them to your neighbors. When children engage in habits that are socially inappropriate, should you crack down, or grin and bear it? According to the experts, it depends on the habits, the reasons children engage in them, and the time and place when it happens.

Distract and Conquer

Thumb-sucking, nail-biting, hair-twirling, or sucking on shirt sleeves or collars, are usually signs that children are tired or anxious, and seeking comfort. Criticizing children for these behaviors can backfire, making them even more anxious and more dependent on the habits. "Pick your battles," says Barbara Kapetanakes, a psychologist in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. "No one, child or adult, is ever going to do things exactly as we would do them or as we want them to."

If you're babysitting or visiting with grandchildren, and they start engaging in a nervous habit, try to redirect them: If a child is chewing on a shirt collar, for example, first calmly tell them that you noticed what they were doing, then gently move the shirt away from their mouth, and finally, suggest a different activity to keep them occupied. "Children aren't that much different than adults when it comes to breaking a habit," Kapetanakes says. "The key is to substitute the habit with something more benign or productive. If a child twirls his hair, he could be given a little toy to play with instead, until he can deal with why he is doing this in the first place and curb the nervous energy. If a child bites his nails, then maybe he could be allowed to chew gum or suck a lollipop until the urge stops."

Back up the Parents

You can try to discuss with your grandchildren the reasons they might engage in a particular habit, but do so in a conversational, nonjudgmental way. Ultimately, it is the parents' responsibility to guide kids away from their infantile habits. But a grandparent can certainly help, either by finding the perfect toy or activity to distract a child from a habit, or by sharing with parents what children might say about how they feel when they indulge in a nervous habit.

Grandparents are also excellent detectors of behaviors that are at risk of becoming habits, so "it's important to talk to the parents if there is something that seems to be an ongoing problem," Kapetanakes says. It's worth speaking up: Five-year-olds who continue to suck their thumbs risk damaging their teeth and palate; frequent nail-biters risk infection; and regular twirlers could pull clumps of hair off their heads.

Sometimes, a parent will take a different approach to dealing with a habit than you would. You can challenge the parents in private, but avoid giving your grandchildren mixed messages. "It is important to sync my approach with my children's," says grandmother of 11 Eileen Fay, 64, of Cranford, N.J. "When I strongly disagree, I, with great restraint, bite my tongue."

Still, context matters a lot, Kapetanakes adds. When you're familiar with your grandchildren's routines, you'll know when they're doing something out of habit, and when they're just angling for trouble. "Sometimes a kid may just be pushing the envelope and engaging in a behavior that is inappropriate, but it's not ongoing," Kapetanakes says. In those cases, you should tell the child what you think of the behavior and why, and inform the parents.

It's Gross, But It Will Pass

And what about habits that are simply gross, like nose-picking? While placing a finger in his or her own mouth after being in a nose will not make a grandchild ill, seeing them do it in public might make you sick. Redirection can help, or stuffing grandchildren's pockets with tissues and encouraging them to use them. If children say their nose itches because it's too dry, you may want to ask the parents to think about getting a humidifier for their room.

As with most childhood phases, the days of infantile habits will pass. "Eventually, the kids have to live in a society," Kapetanakes says, and, eventually, they'll learn on their own what is and is not appropriate. "I sometimes think of kids like puppies. We aren't born knowing all the rules of society, but we can learn them."

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