Dear Dr. Rene,
I have two boys. About a month after having a new baby and the start of a new preschool, my older son starting picking at his cuticles. He doesn’t always do this, but in moments when he is bored or his hands are free and he thinks no one is looking he will pick. He doesn’t do this when his hands are busy with books or puzzles. He didn’t pick his nails much at all this summer but seems to have started again now that the school year is in.
At night we put lotion on so his hands aren’t dry. If we see him picking, we’ll wrap his finger in a band-aid. We have lost our patience with asking him to stop and are now at discipline which seems to make things worse. What should we do?
Mom of two, ages four-and-a-half and 21 months
Habits like this are annoying and hard to break. If you attend too much, you may reinforce through attention. Attend too little and the behavior runs amok. The first line of defense is to make his hands busy. This is giving him what’s called an incompatible behavior. He isn’t picking his nails while doing puzzles, squishing play-doh or coloring so keep those types of activities on hand. Whenever you see him picking give him something to do that keeps his hands busy. Think about making him the Official Thing Carrier.
It’s good to be proactive with the lotion. I also like the idea of putting a band-aid on the finger if he is picking, and I would say something like, “we need to keep your fingers safe.” If it become a more frequent habit, you might put band-aids on all for a while just to give everyone a break.
Be sure in your language that you avoid saying things like, “don’t pick your nails,” or “stop picking.” Rather focus your langauge on the thing you want him TO DO such as “lave your fingers alone,” or “put your hands down.” This simple shift can have a big impact over time. You are reinforcing the thing to do, and that should be the language in his head when he starts to pick and you are not around.