8 Bad Habits ... and How to Help Kids Change Them

Tipping in his chair, picking noses and scabs left and right...what to do about those bad habits your kid can't shake? Parents who “freak out” over their kid’s habits can actually reinforce them or increase stress and anxiety that led to the behavior in the first place, says Dr. Gary McClain, author of The Complete Idiot’s Book to Breaking Bad Habits. So, how can you address these habits without spinning your wheels?

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By Keren Perles

Parents who “freak out” over their kid’s habits can actually reinforce them or increase stress and anxiety that led to the behavior in the first place, says Dr. Gary McClain, author of The Complete Idiot’s Book to Breaking Bad Habits. So, how can you address these habits without spinning your wheels?

First, have a conversation with your child to uncover any feelings she’s struggling with. Asking why she feels compelled to do something instead of just telling her not to do it can open up opportunities to solve the problem. Keep what she says in mind while you’re setting up a system to counter her bad habits. Then, instead of making every bad habit a moral battle, find ways to "hack" them—think of clever strategies and tricks to make it easier for your kid to nip it in the bud. Take a look at these eight bad habits kids have and how to deal with them.


Explain to your child that you shouldn’t do this in public because it spreads germs and can make others sick, says McClain. Make sure your child always has a travel pack of tissues in her pocket and when you see her reaching for her nose, remind her to grab a tissue before she gets there. If that doesn’t work, have her wash her hands after each time you catch her picking. Having to drop what he’s doing to rush to the bathroom will get old quickly and help kick the habit.

Tipping the Chair Back

Tired of saying “One of these days you’re going to fall over and get hurt” like a broken record? Make a hole in four tennis balls and put one on each leg of your kid's chair to make tipping harder. Or, have her sit on a posture ball while studying or during dinner so that she gets used to sitting properly. Once she’s graduated to a normal chair again, let her have a piece of her favorite candy if she makes it through the whole meal completely grounded.

Leaving Dirty Clothes on the Floor

If your kid sheds her clothes like a snakeskin and “forgets” to put them in the hamper, talk with her to come up with some fun incentives to get the clothes where they belong. Put a basketball rim over the hamper so she can practice her slam dunk. If that doesn’t work, make clothes cleanup part of the bedtime routine. After she’s brushed her teeth, have her pick up all her socks before hopping into bed. Still no progress? Only do the laundry that made it into the basket, not clothes are on the floor. Sure, her mud-caked soccer jersey might raise eyebrows when you drop her off at practice, but by standing your ground, you’ll avoid enabling this bad habit.

Breaking Toys

Fiddling with toys and breaking them may be your child’s way of getting your attention. To combat this expensive bad habit, downsize how many toys you have around the house so that your child learns to take care of the ones she has. If she breaks her sister’s toy, she has to do her chores to earn money for a replacement. And whatever you do, don’t replace your child’s broken toys—at least for as long as it takes for the message to sink in. If she can’t resist the urge to play rough, replace her more fragile toys with a couple of “fidget toys” to play with. Anything durable, from stress balls to rubber animals to silly putty, should fit the bill and get the impulse out of her system without enabling her destructiveness.

Picking Scabs

It’s one of those habits that you just can’t bear to watch. To start, make sure your child understands how picking scabs can cause infection and prevent a wound from healing. Buy some fun bandages picturing her favorite cartoon or plain ones that she can decorate with permanent marker. Make sure to change the bandage every day so that she’s not tempted when it stops sticking. Keep her nails short, too, so that if her fingers start prying at the boo-boo, there’s a lower chance of infection or further damaging the skin.

Chewing on Clothes

Besides the “yuck” factor, chewed-on sleeves or collars wear out quickly and start to smell. According to McClain, kids might develop a chewing habit because they’re bored, but chewing in particular is an indication that the child is trying to cope with anxiety. In addition to considering the underlying problem, give your child sugar-free gum, or buy an edible candy bracelet or necklace from the store. If you need some extra help while handling the root causes, get some baby teething toys for her to use at home so that she’s not damaging her pearly whites in the meantime.

Slamming Doors

All the banging echoing through your house gives you a headache. Your child argues that she closed the door gently, and you must have imagined the slam! There’s a way to avoid a struggle and turn down the door frame percussion: Install a door damper, which catches the door as it closes and slows it down to avoid a slam. You can also make a DIY cushion by cutting open part of a pool noodle and wedging it on the door. It might not look pretty, and forces an open-door policy, but if your kid decides she wants some privacy again, she’ll have to pay special attention to closing the door gently.

Leaving the Toilet Seat Up

Some little boys (and men) have a particularly hard time remembering to lower the seat. Tape a cartoon picture of a toilet at eye level near the sink to remind him not to skip that step. Make a chart below, and have him put a sticker on it for every time he remembers. Give him a special reward that he’ll look forward to for every ten stickers, and soon, putting the seat down will be something he does automatically.

Keep in mind that if you’re fighting with your child about a bad habit, it will make it even harder for her to stop. Instead, help her recognize that you’re on her side. When she starts resisting these habits, pour on the encouragement and praise, which will reinforce positive behavior and let her know that her efforts have been noticed and appreciated.

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