Child Chewing on Clothes


Hi Dr. Rene,

My six-year-old son has a habit of chewing on his shirts. He frequently comes home from school with his collar and sleeves in tatters. I really think he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. When he does it at home, I can gently remind him to stop, and he does. But when he’s at school, I’m not there to remind him not to do it. Any thoughts on getting him past this?

Hannah, mom of two

Dear Hannah,

There are a variety of reasons cited for children mindlessly chewing on clothes. Some suggest chewing may assist children with focus and attention. It is along the lines of giving kids a koosh-ball for focused fidgeting in the classroom. Others suggest some children just need more physical movement and sitting still causes built up tension.  These may be sensory-seeking children with a need for more oral stimulation or physical stimulation overall. For others it may be a self-soothing activity like thumb sucking or hair twirling. The chewing may help the child calm from negative emotions. However it started, for some children it just becomes a habit.

There are just as many suggestions on how to curb the unwanted behavior. Following the koosh-ball idea, there are chew bracelets, necklaces (such as phitens or chewelery), chewy tubes, grabbers, chewing pencil toppers, teething balls, coffee stirers and small nuk brushes. Several parents on Listserves suggest a wash cloth then strips of a wash cloth for children to chew as needed. Children may enjoy brushing their teeth often with a soft toothbrush. I tend to prefer the replacement activities such as counting the back of their teeth with their tongue or chewing healthy, crunchy snacks (think apple slices and carrots often) or sugar-free chewing gum.

It may be worthwhile to test if more physical movement opportunities and movement breaks during the day help. This might include taking your child to the playground in the morning, providing lots of gross motor activities indoors and out and being sure there are recess and P.E. breaks at school. Plan for your child to have challenges around carrying, pushing, pulling, climbing and swimming.

It may also be helpful to teach your child other ways to self soothe. This may be deep breathing, slow or backward counting, visualization, meditation or mantras. You might provide a lovey to sleep with and cuddle. If the chewing seems to be ramping up, it is worth checking for any stress your child may be feeling.

When you do see the behavior be sure you are gently saying, “take that out of your mouth,” or, “clothes stay out of your mouth,” rather than, “stop chewing on that,” or, “don’t chew.” Ask his teacher to do the same everytime. I would pair this with one of the other options like a chew bracelet or gum. Each time redirect him to what he can chew. Avoid nagging, yelling or disciplining the chewing. This increased negative attention often backfires. The long term idea is most children outgrow this behavior on their own but it can take a while.

If it doesn’t lessen soon and considerably with your consistent efforts, you might take a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist who is familiar with chewing for ideas beyond mine.

A good related article:

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Want Kids to Listen? Stop Repeating Yourself!

It’s an all too familiar scenario…

Mom is almost ready to leave, children are still coloring in the kitchen. Mom says, “hey, time to get your shoes on, and could you turn off the tv, please?” Mom keeps moving to put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Children ignore mom’s request and keep coloring. Mom walks over to gather her things, turns off the tv herself and says, “really, get your shoes.  We gotta go.” Children continue coloring. One child looks up briefly, sees mom looking through her purse and checking her phone, so back to coloring. Mom, without looking up says, “shoes.” Mom, putting on her coat snaps, “shoes now! (five seconds pass) That’s one….(five seconds), two….(five seconds), do you hear me? I am counting! GET YOUR SHOES!” Crayons drop, kids move towards shoes. 

Parent asks child to do something. Child ignores request. Parent repeats request. Child ignores. Parent escalates. Child ignores. Parent, who was initially calm, loses it and yells. Child listens and moves into action. Parent is frustrated that child doesn’t listen.

The unfortunate thing if you are in this cycle is you are actually teaching your child to NOT listen. By repeating the request, you are directly teaching them to tune you out. The child is learning that, when you start talking, you are going to say it two or three more times, so they wait. They learn that they have at least a few more minutes from the first request before they have to listen. They learn you are unpredictable, sometimes you really mean it, and sometimes you just don’t, so they watch.

To break the habit of repeating yourself, you have to make a new habit. The idea is to say it once, and then expect them to listen. Accept that at least initially, you may have to move into action and help them to listen. You may have to help them at first because together you’ve created the pattern of tuning out. So let’s say you buy in, and starting now, decide to say things once and expect children to listen. For starters, the new pattern is going to fail. Tomorrow morning, you get their attention and very clearly say, “it’s time to go. Put on your shoes, please.” They are not likely to listen as listening the first time is not the familiar habit. Rather than repeat and frustrate yourself, move into action. Take child to shoes, or take shoes to child, and get them started. You can still give them choices about which pair of shoes or which step to sit on. You can give them a challenge to put them on before you sing the alphabet. You can still be polite and say please. The point is, you can still talk, just avoid the repeated asking them to put on their shoes again. Hopefully you will be less frustrated. Even if you have to stop what you are doing to help, at least you only said it once.

Have faith that you are building a new and better habit. It should only take a few weeks before a six-year-old starts to realize, “oh, you are only going to say things once. You actually expect me to listen.” With a two-year-old, it can take until they are three, but it is a far better habit to be in as a parent, to say things once and expect listening than to start down the path of repeating to be ignored.

We had a mom in class who said, “I get this, but it’s crazy. I must say 16 times every morning, ‘put on your shoes.’ No one is listening to me, but I”m making four lunches, and I’ve got four boys running amok, and you want me to stop making lunch.” Yes, I either want her to stop making lunches and help them listen, OR, better yet, save her breath and wait until she is done making lunches, and then gather everyone to ask them to put on shoes. Wait until you are in a position to move into action and expect listening. In her current habit she is directly teaching them to tune her out 16 times, making the rest of her day that much harder. Clearly there is a need to change the habit.

Stop the Nose Picking!

Little boy standing picking his nose

Dear Dr. Rene,

Any advice on how to get my two-year-old to stop picking his nose? He is obsessed with it – and there isn’t even much in there since his nose is so runny this time of year! Not only is it really gross, but I have an infant at home and really want to keep his germs off his fingers and away from her.


Kathleen, mom of two

Hi Kathleen,

There are a few answers for a two-year-old and more answers as they get older. I am going to give you all the answers here and highlight the parts I think would be best for his little age.

First, eliminate any irritants. This includes excessive mucus from allergies or a cold. This may be best treated with a nasal aspirator or neti pot and saline wash. Also regularly wash off any crusty spots with a warm towel. It may also be that the nose is too dry due to dehydration or dry weather. This may be treated with a moisturizing nasal spray, a humidifier or a thin coat of petroleum jelly in the nostrils. The idea is if the nose is uncomfortable or itchy, children tend to pick more.

Children may also pick out of habit or boredom. If this is the case, overtime:

  • Quietly remind him to keep his hands down or keep his fingers out of his nose. State this in the positive. Avoid the negative direction of ,”don’t pick your nose.” You may also have to guide his hands gently down.  
  • Give him a tissue or help him to blow and wipe his nose with a tissue and have him take it to the trash. It can be helpful to occasionally give a sentence of praise, “you used a tissue! That’s healthy!”
  • Have him or help him wash his hands, every time.

It may be helpful to provide incompatible behaviors. Children who are coloring, building with blocks or doing puzzles are less likely to be picking their nose. This means keeping their hands busy and providing distractor tasks even when you are out of the house. Carry things in your bag to keep his hands busy.

Keep nails clean and trimmed short.

You might, each morning, put bandaids around the tip of each picking finger.

You might talk about how it is an embarrassing and socially unacceptable behavior. In kid terms that would be, “other people think it’s gross for you to pick your nose.” You might talk about how it spreads germs and can make their own nose infected. Be sure this isn’t a lecture, just a sentence or two (if often more effective). For a two-year-old, just say, “gross!” 

If all this isn’t effective, you might teach how this is a “private behavior,” for when a child is alone in the bathroom or their bedroom. If you go this route, provide tissues in those rooms and have him wash his hands after.

If it truely seems compulsive, constant or paired with other behaviors of concern, it may be worth talking to your pediatrician about.

You might also read:

  • I am a Booger…Treat Me with Respect by Cook
  • Germs Are Not for Sharing by Verdick
  • Germs Make Me Sick by Berger

I hope this helps!

Dr. Rene

Nervous Habit

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

Dear Jen,
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.
Good Luck!
Dr. Rene

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