Few children grow to maturity without at some time developing a nervous habit or tic, a minor symptom of anxiety or sleeping problem. This is only natural: children experience anxiety just as adults do. However, because they have less control over their environment than adults, and are less able to avoid stressful situations, most children have a strong need for parental help and understanding when they are feeling anxious.
Many children hide their feelings of unease, and their subconscious anxiety may then surface in various forms of seemingly uncharacteristic behaviour. In older children, physical problems such as recurring abdominal pain or vomiting can result from anxiety. Ignoring or ridiculing emotional problems is unhelpful; instead, parents should try to discover the root cause of the anxiety. Children who feel secure and loved usually worry less than those who feci insecure and neglected. Common causes of worry or fear during childhood are separation at night and being left alone without a parent or with a stranger. Sometimes anxiety is transmitted by other people, as when a mother over-anxious about potty training makes her child fretful too.
Habits and tics
All babies have a reflex need to suck; some suck their thumbs even before they are born. Some babies are allowed by their mothers to spend a lot of time sucking at the breast even if no more milk is left. Bottle-fed babies and those kept to a strict breastfeeding schedule have to satisfy their ‘comfort sucking’ needs elsewhere. They may suck their thumb or fingers, a dummy they have been given or they may choose some other ‘comfort object’ such as a soft toy or a blanket.
It should be noted, however, that if a breastfed baby is not gaining enough weight and is sucking his thumb a lot, he may not be having long enough at the breast and the mother’s milk supply will fail. Thumb-sucking does not damage the first set of teeth, but the older thumb-sucker may push his teeth out of line and need orthodontic care. Nevertheless, the thumb is as good a comforter as anything for the young child past breastfeeding, and better than many: a dummy is likely to be dropped in dirty places unless it is attached to the child’s clothing, and blankets and toys may get lost, causing distress. Comfort sucking normally continues well into toddlerhood and often beyond.
Sometimes the habit is difficult to break. Unless the child himself wishes to stop, he is likely to replace thumb-sucking, if it is forbidden, with some other habit such as nail-biting. In general a child should not be pushed too hard to stop his habit as this may even stimulate it. It is better to inform a child that his behaviour is undesirable – in time he will adapt. Even a potty-trained child may wet the bed at night.
Usually bed-wetting happens because a child has not matured enough for the stimulus of his full bladder to wake him. Some children wake up but are too frightened to get out of bed or too sleepy to call their mother or father. A night-time nappy helps guard against wet beds and a cold child, but it may encourage the child to continue wetting himself. Most children become dry at night, with occasional accidents, by two or three years of age. Heavy sleepers may take longer. One in twenty or so eleven-year-olds still wets the bed sometimes.
Nail-biting may start because of emotional insecurity. But soon becomes a pleasurable or compulsive habit lasting sometimes into adulthood. Some children start biting their nails because the nails are not well cared for; others copy a nail-biting friend. Nail-biting, like thumb-sucking, can sometimes be controlled if parents suggest to their child that it is done only in private, or by rewarding the child who voluntarily stops doing it for an agreed time. The older child may be encouraged to stop biting his nails if he concentrates on one nail at a time, allowing it to grow. Gradually he may stop biting additional nails, until he stops altogether. A promised reward of a light nail-varnish may help a girl of five or more years of age to stop. Tics, such as repeated and habitual tossing of the hair out of the eyes, or blinking, may be no more than habit, or may have an emotional origin. If the parents suspect that their child’s tic began during a period that was particularly stressful, they might do well to discuss the events of that time with him, helping him to cope with them emotionally instead of displacing his feelings into an outward physical problem. Nagging at a child never stops an annoying habit, and often makes it worse. Parents should seek advice if they are unsure what to do.