Tips for weaning my kid off thumbsucking for emotional regulation?
October 6, 2019 6:44 AM   Subscribe

My son is turning five, and sucks his thumb when he is really stressed and upset as a way of regaining control of his emotions and calming down. We're trying to get him to break the habit; what are good alternatives to thumb sucking that he could use to regulate his emotions?

He used to suck his thumb a lot more, but after some encouragement, we've managed to get him to not suck his thumb almost all the time. The only times he still does suck his thumb is when he's napping/sleeping, and when he's really upset. We're working on the sleeping part, and it should be doable. But sucking for emotional regulation seems particularly hard to break, because it happens when he is really losing control of himself.

In those situations, he still can actually stop himself from thumb sucking, and in fact will wait for us to tell him that it's ok for him to suck his thumb. Once his thumb pops into his mouth, he immediately calms down, stops crying uncontrollably, and can soon talk to us about what it was that upset him so much. So it is an extremely effective way for him to self-soothe. But if he doesn't get to suck his thumb, oftentimes he doesn't seem able to calm down at all.

Since he's at the age where his permanent teeth are starting to come out, we need him to stop sucking his thumb, which means we need some other kind of thing he could do to calm down. So far we've suggested deep breathing, looking out of a window, hugging something, singing a song, but they don't really cut it. Any other ideas?
posted by destrius to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Why are you taking away something that helps him self-soothe? This is a serious question. Our pediatrician has said that the permanent teeth concern is not really common anymore and was overblown when it was being recommended. Now they focus more on allowing kids to self soothe. Is a medical professional recommending this or are you just going off a concern that you heard growing up?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:56 AM on October 6 [26 favorites]


But sucking for emotional regulation seems particularly hard to break, because it happens when he is really losing control of himself.

You and your son are very, very fortunate that he's found a way to emotionally self-regulate.

Once his thumb pops into his mouth, he immediately calms down, stops crying uncontrollably, and can soon talk to us about what it was that upset him so much. So it is an extremely effective way for him to self-soothe

This seems like the parenting ideal, to be honest. Even if your son has a melt down twice a day and thumb sucks for 5 minutes at a time, 10 minutes of thumb sucking per day is not going to result in braces.

Also there are worse things than braces -- like boys being raised in a culture that fuels masculine rage by disallowing 99% of tools for emotional self regulation as feminine or childish.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:01 AM on October 6 [43 favorites]


Can he wear a chewable pendant? There are some great options these days.

Options include:
* bat
* UFO
* shark
* alien
* stegosaurus

You may also want to look at this wide range of toys for self-regulation, many of which are used with hands not mouths...
posted by Murderbot at 7:10 AM on October 6 [9 favorites]


Hello, parent of occasional 23-year-old thumb-sucker here.

She was a bit of an anxiety-prone kid, and our pediatrician suggested we just let her grow out of it at her own pace. Well, apparently her pace is glacial. She's turned into a relatively normal young adult.

This is to say - perhaps this isn't a big deal?

One thing that didn't work for us, when we were actively trying to discourage it when she was very young, was to point it out every time we saw her doing it. She just started hiding it, and I was worried that was a bad precedent. I'd rather have her tell me when she was feeling bad, then to hide out in her room.

One thing that did help a little was peer pressure - she stopped most of it when she started school and participating in after-school activities.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:46 AM on October 6 [6 favorites]


I am a parent of a six year old who would chew on his shirt when he was 4/5 as a way to get out his anxieties. The daycare he was in at age 4 was pretty controlling and strict about manners, expected behavior, etc, and that was stressful AF for my kid. We did get him a chewable necklace (which he still uses about once every couple of months), but what helped the most was getting him out of that stressful environment.

Usually when my kid gets in a state where he is really "losing himself" like you say above, it is due to being over tired and/or not eating well or having to "behave" too much in too many situations that are stressful without a break to just chill and do his own thing for a while.

It sounds like you are giving him good ideas for coping mechanisms if he is only sucking his thumb these few overwhelming times. I think the next best thing you can do for him is to help limit these overwhelming times for him as his parents. Try to recognize what situations cause this and avoid them if possible. Move them to other days, other times, or opt out completely if possible. Kids have it rough - not given much agency of their own lives or activities, which can be super wearing.

Good luck.
posted by jillithd at 8:15 AM on October 6 [3 favorites]


My girl used her thumb the same way. I heard the same thing from her dentist, and I followed the advice, but honestly, now I regret having nagged her about it. I doubt it worked any faster than her own maturation would have on its own, and it made us both more anxious than we needed to be. And my girl was older than your kid by a fair bit.

If your boy is only doing this when he's "really losing control of himself" then it can't be all the time, right? We're not talking hours a day that could deform his mouth. We're talking a few minutes here and there. Give him a kiss and a pat on the back and let him self soothe when he needs to. Peer pressure will take care of what he does outside the house, and if he has a reliable self-soothe mechanism while inside the house, so much the better for all of you.

By the way... is this your oldest? I ask because in retrospect I think I was much harsher in terms of demanding mature behaviors from my oldest than I was with the younger one. When it's your youngest, it's easier to see that they are still a baby, and that it's ok, desirable even, to have that stage last as long as it can. If this is your oldest you may need to make a conscious effort to go easy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:16 AM on October 6 [3 favorites]


Why are you taking away something that helps him self-soothe?

So we've agonized a lot about this, and are wondering if we really shouldn't be depriving him of something so important to him. The biggest reason was dental, and if it's true that isn't an issue nowadays, it'd change the calculus quite a bit. So far every site I've looked at says thumbsucking should stop by around 5 to prevent dental issues; do you have any links that suggest otherwise?

The other reason is of course that we live in a somewhat conservative Asian society, and thumb sucking is really frowned upon. Personally it doesn't bother me at all, but everybody, from relatives, to teachers at kindergarten, to his paediatrician, have been saying that he should stop sucking his thumb. And he knows it, and he feels ashamed of it; once when he needed to suck his time while we were outside, he asked me to hide him so others wouldn't see what he was doing.

So, even if we as parents don't say anything, he already knows society considers what he's doing to be shameful. And we're not sure if its healthy for him to rely so much on something that he feels ashamed about. Perhaps it would be better if he found some other coping mechanism that wouldn't be judged in the same way?

You and your son are very, very fortunate that he's found a way to emotionally self-regulate.

Yeah, I feel this a lot actually, particularly because his younger sister (now around 18 months) doesn't suck her thumb and doesn't seem to have any easy way to regulate her emotions, and as a result is a lot harder to deal with.

I think the next best thing you can do for him is to help limit these overwhelming times for him as his parents. Try to recognize what situations cause this and avoid them if possible.

Most of the time it starts when he's throwing a tantrum or being naughty and doing something he shouldn't, and if we can't get him to cool off, it escalates till he's bawling away and that's when he needs his thumb. We try not to let things get that bad, but I think as any parent knows it can sometimes be impossible, especially if you also need to be firm with them about various rules. He's also kind of an emotional person, easily brought to tears (he used to cry every single time we read the Snowman poem by Shel Silverstein), and we don't discourage him from crying since we don't want him to suppress his emotions.

But yeah, it's not really something that happens all the time, maybe never on good days, a few times on bad days. So perhaps we should just let him use his thumb when he needs it? I just want to make sure it isn't something that will cause him problems later, whether physical, social or mental.

Thanks for all the replies so far!

My son's a lot like me, I find, and maybe we're both a little bit on the spectrum (neither of us have ever been diagnosed). I have all sorts of little compulsive tics, and I've noticed that while he sucks his thumb he likes to tap his upper lip in a specific, repetitive way. It might be a form of stimming which is how it helps him calm down so much. So I really really want to make sure I'm doing right by him.
posted by destrius at 8:46 AM on October 6 [6 favorites]


I am a parent of a six year old who would chew on his shirt when he was 4/5 as a way to get out his anxieties.

Yeah so that reminds me that he went through a shirt chewing period too, and the reason he did that was because he couldn't suck his thumb (because he was in public/in school where people would see him).

By the way... is this your oldest? I ask because in retrospect I think I was much harsher in terms of demanding mature behaviors from my oldest than I was with the younger one. When it's your youngest, it's easier to see that they are still a baby, and that it's ok, desirable even, to have that stage last as long as it can. If this is your oldest you may need to make a conscious effort to go easy.

Yup, he is our oldest kid. That's a good observation... but I guess we've been adopting the "just wait and he'll grow out of it" strategy for a while and now that he's five we're wondering if maybe an intervention is needed.
posted by destrius at 8:50 AM on October 6


Thinking about replacement oral stims that would be less apparent or more acceptable - gum or hard candy? drinking from a water bottle with a fancy spout or something thick like a shake he can suck through a straw? or see if another category of stimming has the same effect for him, like something from this list.
posted by gaybobbie at 9:00 AM on October 6


Hello.
Well this is a heck of a public admission to make on the internet but I am a lifelong thumbsucker (I'm in my 60s) and I can tell you there are a few of us - we can recognise each other (from the very unobtrusive thumb calluses!) It is a habit that begins before birth so breaking it is not a simple matter, it's comfortable and tactile, it's both effective and otherwise harmless, and no my front teeth don't stick out even a little bit so I'm pretty sure it doesn't affect children's teeth.

I too grew up somewhere where children must be seen to be trying not to be childish almost as soon as they're walking and talking. I think the current parenting idea is that this attitude creates many more problems than it solves? If your son is confident enough of you to ask you to hide him when he wants to suck his thumb, I think you are doing really really well as a parent. Other people's attitudes will have an effect on him though, so perhaps the best thing to do is stress it's something to do in private. (It strikes me this problem is a little like when a child discovers the pleasure in touching their own private parts: you know there are norms you want them to conform to and at the same time the last thing you want is for them to be ashamed of their own body or their own feelings.)

As others have said above, kids tend to stop doing it in public once they are subject to peer pressure from other children. From what you write you are dealing with the problematic aspects of this habit - other people - adequately and sensitively anyway. Please be reassured it's not going to damage his teeth at all. Mind you, some people's physiology is such that their front teeth naturally stick out. If your son turns out to be one of them, that will be because it is the shape of his face and nothing to do with thumbsucking.
posted by glasseyes at 9:25 AM on October 6 [16 favorites]


Physiognomy! Not physiology.
posted by glasseyes at 9:31 AM on October 6


Chance are your kid’s going to need braces anyway — they will fix whatever permanent teeth damage is done by thumb sucking, if there is any. (Speaking as an adult with braces at the moment, braces have come so far from when i was a teenager 25 years ago!!). And frankly thumb sucking is probably less damaging than the adult version, which is biting your nails. He’s found a way to self soothe that’s effective... I would pay everything my braces cost to have that myself (or at least something that doesn’t involve food, anyway).
posted by cgg at 9:39 AM on October 6 [1 favorite]


It’s certainly not a dental concern, but it might be a hygienic one—generally it’s good practice to keep hands out of mouths. He’s able to self regulate to the point where he “waits for permission” so this seems like a good time to introduce a thumb replacement for him to suck on, which he can pull out on his own volition or with gentle guiding. There are fidget objects designed exactly for this which come in a variety of density, colors etc and don’t look like “baby toys” (so may be more socially acceptable) but I don’t have any links for your region. Breaking the shame association with emotional regulation should really be the biggest priority here.
posted by zinful at 10:03 AM on October 6


So perhaps we should just let him use his thumb when he needs it? I just want to make sure it isn't something that will cause him problems later, whether physical, social or mental.

that would be my strong recommendation, as the parent of a kid who was also emotional and self-soothed this way. They do grow out of it usually, 5 is still such a tiny child. And if they don't... meh? Honest to God, I wish I had a private soothing mechanism this harmless, as an adult.

Don't let your surroundings pressure you on this. Your duty is to your family and you will cause more agita than you prevent by nagging your baby about it. Best thing you can do is give him the space and assurance to self soothe, particularly at home.

5 is not too young however to be taught that some things are frowned upon in public. I am pretty sure peer pressure will take care of it in that case, but it's ok, should you see that he's paying a social price, to tell him it's something that's not a good idea to do outside the house.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:37 AM on October 6 [2 favorites]


I would argue that there's a certain point where even most adults don't really know what to do, and where most people resort to something that isn't socially acceptable in most terms: Meltdown crying, heavy drinking, screaming at people, total shutdown. As adults, mostly we only see this in moments of extreme stress. A person who just got fired, just found out their spouse is leaving them, just found out that a loved one has died. From this perspective, having a childhood coping tool still in your back pocket is actually kind of helpful. Sleep habits aside, it might be useful to stop thinking so much about other stuff he can do when he's already feeling that bad, and start working on identifying when he feels almost that bad and how to deal with it before he gets there. That's the part we mostly get better at as we go along, I think, rather than actually being particularly good at soothing ourselves at point of meltdown.

As somebody who still does the security blanket thing as needed, I think breaking the sleep habit is a good idea, just because having hard requirements to sleep like that is really incompatible with the ordinary chaotic sleep arrangements of summer camps, sleepovers, school trips, and so on. I still have the blanket, but I have had many occasions to be glad that I can do without it for a few nights.
posted by Sequence at 10:41 AM on October 6 [3 favorites]


So, even if we as parents don't say anything, he already knows society considers what he's doing to be shameful. And we're not sure if its healthy for him to rely so much on something that he feels ashamed about.

I mean, society is also going to tell him that it's shameful to be gay, or a drag queen, or left handed or a lover of ballet or a painter under 40 who isn't a misogynist alcoholic. All of those things are in fact perfectly healthy. Your job is to support him, and give him options. He can make the decision to stop thumb sucking; this is 100% not a decision you need to make for him.

Why don't you try telling him that you're proud of him for finding a way to calm himself and that that is a REALLY good skill to have and that if he doesn't feel comfortable doing it in front of other people, would sucking on this (substitute item) help him when you are not there?
posted by DarlingBri at 12:02 PM on October 6 [7 favorites]


I sucked my thumb until I was six and I also had a security blanket. When I look back on efforts to make me give them up, I’m utterly baffled. Why would you ask a child to give up their comfort object? It’s only going to leave them needing more comfort, not less, and now without an easy way to find it. My teeth are perfect, btw. And anyway that’s what braces are for.
posted by HotToddy at 2:55 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


My kid is openly quirky in an Asian society so I get the pressure. I have helpful people commenting and outright shaming her to her face, and the school peer pressure is intense. It is meant to be helpful because conforming is a social good here, but individuality and stubbornness are also valuable adult traits too, and I'm glad my kids have them. Back him up for thumb sucking if that's his thing, quietly and firmly - tell people who shame him no, we think it's ok for boys to do this and he's managing his emotions like a big boy. He's really mature. Don't make him feel ashamed. Be blunt and even if he gives up thumb sucking, he'll remember you had his back.

Mine has chewed all her nails off and chews things. We use the chewable necklace or squishies. At home, she has a pacifier to chomp on when stressed. A thumb is so much more convenient and sensible!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:11 PM on October 6 [4 favorites]


Sucked my thumb until I was 12, didn’t need braces until I was in my 50s. For self regulation when I couldn’t suck my thumb I drew on things, stole, and ate candy. (Setting fires was only occasional). On the whole thumb sucking is preferred.
posted by Peach at 3:24 PM on October 6 [5 favorites]


Apparently it matters how hard you suck your thumb. If you suck it hard your bottom teeth will dent inward a bit and your upper teeth will dent outward and someone who knows what to look for will be able to tell at a glance if you suck your right thumb or your left.

If, on investigation, it seems that your son is not sucking hard and his thumb can be pulled back out of his mouth with no resistance and no pop noise while he is sucking it, there is a good chance he will not create dental problems.

If he continues to suck his thumb you might try to encourage him to switch hands. This would give him, perhaps, a half-way stage that provides some comfort, but isn't the same as uncontrollably popping his right thumb into his mouth. Alternating hands might be a useful exercise while trying to extinguish the behaviour.

But you say that your son is ashamed of thumb sucking and asks you to hide him so he can do it? And that he will wait for permission to suck? Your kid is already nine-tenths of the way and self motivated to breaking the habit. If he doesn't break it himself in the next few months, then I doubt any motivation or punishment you supply will encourage him to break the habit any faster. He sounds like he is trying his hardest to stop sucking his thumb already and has good control.

But so far as I am concerned if you let him suck his thumb you are going a long way laying the ground work to make it unlikely that he takes up smoking when he is older. He's way better off sucking his thumb than have frustrating long lasting oral cravings.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:58 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


I sucked my thumb till I was probably about 11? I'm now an adult, my teeth are fine.

I think I decided myself I wanted to stop, and I kinda remember that it was really hard to do.

I don't think about it much anymore, except for occasionally moments when, as an adult, I find myself still really wanting to do it to comfort myself. Now, what I do when I feel like that, is turn my thumb on its side and suck it sideways. Or bite it sideways. It doesn't look like 'thumb sucking', but it has nearly the same soothing effect. Maybe he could try that instead?

But yeah -- I would definitely worry about trying to force him to give up something that is helping him so much, especially while he is still so little.
posted by EllaEm at 4:49 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


My brother sucked his thumb until he was 12 and out of us four kids he was the only one that didn’t need braces at all. Then there’s my son who never sucked anything - no thumb, no pacifier, nothing and has had ridiculous amounts of orthodontic work for various reasons. Your kid could stop sucking his thumb tomorrow and still need orthodontic work for some other reason. I’d honestly take the dental concern right out of your consideration.
posted by Sassyfras at 4:56 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


Also to add that my (totally not at all on the spectrum) brother sucked his thumb as a child, and when he did so he also had a particular tic: twisting a lock of his hair with the other hand. He gave up on the thumb sucking but still twirls his hair. He is pretty unembarrassed about it, and if people ever try to joke about it he just stares them down. It's something he finds very soothing, even though he is in his 40s now and a fully fledged successful adult with a boring job :-)
posted by EllaEm at 4:57 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


We got my daughter to mostly stop sucking her thumb by explaining to her that it was affecting her teeth and her speech. She decided that her frustration over not being able to communicate with her peers was worse than not thumb sucking, and worked really hard at it, and while it was really hard at first, I actually think her baseline level of emotional regulation is higher. It's been about six months, and she's not doing it to fall asleep anymore either.

Which is all to say that if it's not affecting her adversely, I'd let it go. In our case, her teeth had moved to the point that she couldn't bite things, or make sounds that required pressing her tongue on to the top of her mouth or against her teeth. Her teeth have shifted back almost entirely, and even her dentist was pleased.

I'm from an Asian culture, so I know how harsh the standards can be. But taking away something he relies on without building other skills to replace it is going to be so hard for everyone. There's still so much very rapid cognitive development happening. What you're describing (only while extremely upset and sleeping) honestly sounds good enough for now.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:16 PM on October 6


I too came in to suggest chewelry, but I also wonder if generally fiddling with how much/little sensory input his body gets might help, in that it might mean he's more centered more of the time, and isn't trying to give up a comfort mechanism under stress. For example, maybe using earmuffs would help (or kid headphones with white noise/sound isolation, if the muffs are too much socially), or light compression clothing under his regular clothes, or having more opportunities for gross motor stuff like bouncing/spinning/flipping, or sunglasses even when it's not especially bright out, or anything else in that whole big genre of things that people might generally find helpful in regulating their bodies.
posted by teremala at 5:53 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


Linus Van Pelt was a thumbsucking fictional character in the popular & influentional 20th century Peanuts comics series. He was mostly unrepentant about his personal habits, and one of the most likeable characters.
posted by ovvl at 7:47 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


Just a data point that I took a long time to quit, and my teeth and jaw are a bit screwed up from it (or possibly from the extensive orthodontia that was used to fix the cosmetic issues it caused). I've got a mild overbite still, and slipped discs in my jaw that cause popping and are pretty annoying.

I don't know how you can help him, nothing my folks tried ever really worked (putting hot sauce on it, wearing appliances on my hand to keep me from having access to the thumb, etc) -- I always figured out a way around it because the self-soothing and sleep-assistance effects were so powerful.
posted by cnidaria at 9:36 PM on October 6


I'm trying to think what I use as an adult and it's making me consider taking up sucking my thumb.

Teeth grinding - even worse for your teeth
Nail biting
Digging nails into hands / arms
Yelling / hitting a wall / throwing something

The only things that seem to be *better* are deep breathing, hugging something tightly, curling into a little ball, or laying down under a tree. Trees are generally helpful, actually - "look at a tree" (and maybe touching the bark) is my go-to advice to myself when I need a little emotional space from my own problems.
posted by Lady Li at 10:14 PM on October 6 [2 favorites]


I sucked my thumb until I was seventeen and was extremely stubborn about it - my stepmother used to put nail biting fluid on my thumb to try and stop me doing it but I would replace the contents of the bottle with water so it never worked!

Anyway, I do have slightly sticky-out front teeth, but that's because I have too many teeth for my rather small jaw. Either you have buck teeth or you don't, thumb sucking isn't going to do it.

Your son will stop in his own time and constant nagging about it will very likely only make him resentful and defensive. For me, I stopped because I was about to go to college and I thought it was about time - I still do it every now and then in times of extremely high stress but on the whole, I can count the times I've sucked my thumb since then on the fingers of one hand.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 12:46 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


Also: if you do manage to get him to quit sucking his thumb without providing him with an adequate substitute, he will probably choose a less-good substitute to self-soothe:

chewing at the wrist-cuffs of his clothing;
chewing the erasers off pencils;
chewing pens/biros;
picking at his scalp;
picking at his skin.
posted by Murderbot at 1:56 AM on October 7


Smoking.

Seriously, of all the self-soothing orally-fixated habits he could have picked up, that's not a terrible one.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:52 AM on October 7


Thank you so much everybody for all your thoughts and comments! Especially the personal anecdotes, which are really helpful. We're reading everything very carefully and will try to figure out the best way forward; I think I largely agree with everybody here that it'd be best to let him keep this valuable soothing mechanism in some form.
posted by destrius at 8:26 AM on October 7


Just chiming in to say I was a thumb-sucker as a child and my parents were always looking for new ways to get me to stop and it caused a lot of anxiety and never worked. I stopped doing it in public when kids started making fun of me. I still sucked my thumb as a way to help me go to sleep through high school and only stopped entirely when I had roommates in college. I had braces, just like everyone else I knew who didn't suck their thumbs. I am a well adjusted adult with only happy memories of having a way to sooth myself as a child.
posted by tangosnail at 2:46 PM on October 8


when I was feeling bad about my extended thumb sucking habit my mother informed me she knew more than one distinguished professors in their sixties who still sucked their thumbs (HOW she knew this I did not ask, but I believe her, it was way too specific a comment to be made up).

my frequency went down over time but i do like having a self soothe tool in my arsenal that is pretty much totally harmless. particularly nice when sick...

for the record I have never needed braces.
posted by Cozybee at 10:44 PM on October 10


« Older Android allow specific notifications on Do Not...   |   Ow, it hurts to sleep! Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments