We all want our child to fit in, to be accepted by peers, to be happy and healthy. So when we perceive that a behavior might interfere with social acceptance, what is our job? To intervene and possibly upset and even interfere with development? To take a laissez-faire attitude with the obvious risk that it won't disappear on its own?
Question: When my healthy 4-year-old daughter is very happy or excited, she reacts with a 3-4 second physical "twitch" - she puts her head down and swirls her fingers and arms around and scrunches up her shoulders. She has done this since she was a baby and does it many times every day.
My husband thinks that this behavior was OK when she was a toddler, but now she must learn to stop it, because it will result in others making fun of her and thinking strangely of her as she ages.
He feels it is our responsibility to get her to stop this now, and his approach is to speak strongly or even yell at her when he sees her doing it. I personally love to see my little girl in a happy way and hate to transform that to a conflicted moment, so up until now, I have ignored the behavior. My questions are: Do these behaviors typically go away by themselves? If we do try to get her to stop this behavior, what is the best and most effective approach? She gets very upset when my husband yells at her for this, and she has said that she doesn't want to change the behavior.
I'm very torn and hope you have some good insights!
From: BethJo, Malden
Your husband is right; kids can get teased for idiosyncratic behaviors. He may be a bit premature in his concerns, however. Preschoolers typically are not put off by each other’s so-called nervous habits which, by the way, are not typically caused by nervousness; they really are a way for a child to self-comfort. In fact, preschoolers probably don’t even these behaviors in each other; they’re too ego-centric.
By school-age, almost anything that sets a child apart from his/her peers gets noticed and sometimes – sometimes – that can be a source of teasing.
Since your daughter is only 4, I suggest you both stop commenting on it altogether. Yelling at her, drawing attention to it, etc., are shaming and humiliating to her and, as such, inappropriate. The typical preschooler’s habit will disappear on its own once the child reaches a new stage of maturity and is able to identify the behavior as “babyish.” Your daughter is likely to get to that point developmentally in a year or so, but it will happen faster if you stop talking about it.
With school-age children, a nervous habit typically will disappear only if the child herself wants to stop it and, unfortunately, that’s most likely to happen as a result of natural consequences, such as being teased. That means leaving things to follow its own course and that can be hard for you, as parents. You can point the habit out to her in an informational kind of way -- "When I was a kid, someone who picked his lip would be teased. Does that happen to you?'' – but that’s about as far as I would go, other than to offer support ("Do you want me to point out to you when you do it?'') and offer coping mechanisms (chewing gum; carrying paper in his pocket and marking it every time he notices someone noticing him picking).
There are three other things to consider:
1) If this habit is something your husband really can’t tolerate – if it is sabotaging his ability to be with her, for instance, (and it sounds like it’s verging on that ) – he needs to find a way to deal with it., either by excusing himself in an unobtrusive way or learning to zip his lip. If it was an offensive behavior (knuckle cracking, say), he could handle it in a matter-of-fact, non-punitive way: “That noise ruins our meal. If you can’t stop doing it at dinner, please leave the table.” But her show of happiness doesn’t exactly qualify.
2) Professional help is in order if: you think there’s a medical component (hair-twirling can turn into hair pulling, which is a serious medical problem; picked fingers can get infected); if it’s a tic (motor tics are not something children can control); or if it’s verging on obsessive-compulsive behavior (a 5-year-old who taps his fingers during story time has a habit that may be disturbing to others, but that's all it is. If he interrupts his play to rush to a spot in the room to tap on the floor, he could be moving along a continuum.) In any of these cases, consult with your pediatrician.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Your daughter is only 4. Back off and give it time.
A book that you may find helpful: "Is it a big problem or a little problem?" by Amy Egan, Amy Freedman, Judi Greenberg & Sharon Anderson
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