July 11, 2010

Families Today: Don't pester children about thumb sucking; you just make it worse

By DR. T. BERRY BRAZELTON and DR. JOSHUA SPARROW

Q: My daughter is 8 years old and she has a problem with thumb sucking. How can I help her? -- Via e-mail

A: Your daughter is much likelier to stop sucking her thumb if she decides on her own. Only when thumb sucking becomes her problem -- not yours -- will she give it up.

When parents try to stop a child's thumb sucking, or even comment on it, they reinforce her need for it. Thumb sucking is one way a child comforts herself when she is scared, lonely, bored or anxious. Her worry that parents will try to interfere with her favorite form of soothing is yet another trigger for thumb sucking.

If you must do anything, just look for the things she does that she can be proud of, and compliment her on them. Help her to feel sure of herself. A parent is a child's most reliable source of soothing until she learns she can count on herself for comfort.

Reduce the stresses and pressures on her that you can control so she'll have less need for this kind of self-soothing. Point up other things she does that help her relax: "You look so comfy like that, all curled up with your book."

Suggest other small pleasures she might try -- going for a walk or a bike ride, humming a song, lying in the grass and looking at the clouds, sipping a cup of milk, or playing cat's cradle or some other game that occupies her hands -- without ever suggesting that these will replace her thumb.

Most children eventually stop on their own out of embarrassment and the wish to be like peers and older children -- if nobody makes an issue of it.

My oldest child sucked her thumb until she was about 8 (as did I). At that age, children whom she admired began to comment on it, so she quit. Leave it to your daughter. If you don't, her struggle with you will matter more to her than her peers' disapproval.

Of course this change is easier said than done. Every time you see her sneak her thumb into her mouth you are bound to think, "What is the matter? What did I do wrong?" Or perhaps, if you sucked your thumb too, "Does she have to turn out like me?"

When thumb sucking becomes a constant reminder of parents' doubts about themselves and fears about their child, it is no longer simply the child's soother.

Instead it has become a vicious cycle between them. Then thumb sucking is everyone's problem -- and the only solution is for parents to pull out of the argument.

Of course parents wonder, "Will she ever stop?" Many parents take comfort in being reminded that thumb sucking isn't likely to be an issue when the 8-year-old is 18.

However, several years ago I wrote a column about thumb sucking. In it, I suggested that deciding when to stop should be left up to each individual.

A 23-year-old woman then wrote to me, "Dear Dr. B., I still suck my thumb when I am going to bed every night and I can't seem to stop myself. I am about to get married and I'll be so embarrassed if my new spouse catches me at it. What can I do?"

I replied, "Don't worry. You won't need your thumb to help you go to sleep now. You'll have a much better replacement to comfort you."

 

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to:

nytsyn-families@nytimes.com

 

-- New York Times Syndicate

 

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