Toddler Behavior: Dealing With Finger-Sucking in Preschoolers

Dear Dr. Heather, My daughter is five-and-a-half and starts kindergarten in the fall. Though she's not developmentally delayed, she is a bit emotionally immature. The thing is -- she's a finger sucker (the 3 middle fingers on her right hand). It doesn't interfere with her play, but if her hands are not busy, her fingers are in her mouth. Even when she talks, I constantly have to say, "I can't understand you if your fingers are in your mouth." Her 3-year-old brother is a thumb-sucker himself, so that could complicate any attempt to get her to quit.

Quite frankly, this drives me BANANAS. But I don't want to make her quit just to soothe my own self-consciousness or aggravation. If I do try to help her quit, how? Help me, BabyShrink! Ellen D.

Dear Ellen, While finger and thumb-sucking tends to subside naturally by age 4 or 5, it’s not uncommon for it to linger awhile longer. We expect a kindergartener to behave like other elementary-aged kids. But ask a teacher. Kindergarteners and first graders are really closer, developmentally, to preschoolers. At this age, kids still don’t care how they appear to others. Social pressure to fit in doesn’t start until closer to age 6 or 7. That’s what will probably be more important to her over time; what her friends say about the finger sucking. Until then, there’s not much you can do to stop it, and you’ll have to Find A Way To Ignore It. Look away, take a deep breath, and do something else.

Isn’t it amazing how well our very young children have the ability to find the exact habit that makes us nuts? My current struggle is with our 2-year-old. He doesn’t suck his fingers, (which probably wouldn’t bother me much), but he very deliberately throws food from his highchair. (And he has good aim now, too.) That’s what drives ME bananas. And the more I try to make him stop, the worse it gets. I’m not saying your daughter does it on purpose to annoy you. But I am amazed at how often our kids’ behaviors push exactly the wrong button with us.

Young children have such little control in their worlds. They’re physically small. They aren’t very coordinated. They’re not allowed to do a ton of cool-looking stuff. Their bodies and minds develop so quickly from day to day, they have no idea what they can (or can’t) accomplish at any particular time. And at any moment, they’re liable to get picked up without warning and taken somewhere they don’t wanna go. Their independence is developing, and yet it’s often thwarted. You can’t blame them for trying to establish some sense of power and control in their life.

That’s why they need self-soothing strategies; funky little habits that help them feel better about the lack of control and chaos they experience in daily life. These self-soothing strategies are also selected partly to aggravate us, as parents. It’s your kid’s way of saying, You may be able to have 90% control of me, but this 10% is all about me. The fact that it annoys you may be what makes it so powerful to your daughter. It’s her way of saying, I finally have some control here! I can get Mommy really bananas about this finger sucking thing!

As a child psychologist, I’m not usually worried about the young kids who have developed weird, annoying self-soothing strategies. I DO worry about the kids who are too compliant and too easy, at this age. Their budding sense of independence needs to be appreciated and given room to grow. So my advice is this – Pick Your Battles. And only pick the ones you can WIN. This one, you won’t win. I mean, is there any strategy or technique that actually works to make a kid stop sucking their thumb or fingers? And more importantly, is that technique worth the price you will pay, psychologically?

If you look up solutions to finger and thumb sucking on the internet, you will come across sites that suggest aversive techniques such as using nasty-tasting things, or even installing dental appliances. YIKES! While these techniques may physically stop the offending behavior, I’m really alarmed at the kind of emotional and psychological damage they could inflict. What kind of message does that send to your child? Your self-soothing strategies are so offensive to me that I will pull out the big guns to make you stop. Your efforts at learning to be independent are going to be crushed. This could set the stage for a complete withdrawal of the drive for independence, resulting in a regressed, passive child. It also could simply press the “pause” button on asserting independence, and then you’ll have major power struggles later, when you can’t simply pick them up like a football anymore. I’ve seen too many difficult therapy cases of 10 and 12-year-olds who are only starting to rebel after having their spirits crushed as toddlers. And then, the rebellion is far worse.

So hang in there, with understanding for the struggles your daughter is experiencing. You should always check with your pediatrician if you have any concerns, but by and large, weird and annoying toddler/preschooler behavior is almost always transitory, and almost always normal. And enjoy this last summer before her first “real” year of school! They grow so fast! (sniff!)


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink