Should I be concerned that my son is still sucking his thumb? It's an embarrassing habit in a boy his age. I've done everything I can think of to get him to stop, but nothing seems to work. Can you help?

We recommend that parents refrain from making an issue of thumbsucking until they are prepared to make an all-out, concerted effort to help their youngster break the habit. In other words, leave it alone until you’re ready to take action – then pull out all the stops. There is a good reason for this. Quite often, moms and dads have a tendency to talk a great deal about this problem without taking decisive steps toward changing the behavior. They drag the process out until a child develops a sensitivity about his thumbsucking and begins to feel “shamed” in the process. When this happens, the situation becomes all the more difficult to handle.

Once parents have made a decision to help a child break this habit – as in your case – we think it’s a good idea to start by attempting to understand the emotions that may be behind the behavior. Ask your child, “What are you thinking about when you suck your thumb? How does it make you feel?” In some instances thumbsucking may be self-soothing or self-calming in intent – in other words, it may be a kind of nervous habit or mechanism for dealing with stress or anxiety. If this is the case, attempts to extinguish the behavior will be relatively ineffective until the underlying issues are addressed. Older children (school age and above) who continue to suck their thumbs in response to emotional or psychological issues should be referred to a professional therapist for counseling.

Sometimes – perhaps in most cases – thumbsucking has nothing to do with deeper psychological problems. It’s just a habit, and it generally has roots that go back to early infancy. Many parents get anxious when it continues past the stage of babyhood. They feel particularly uncomfortable if their child is still sucking his or her thumb long after “other people’s” children have stopped. And there’s legitimate cause for some of their concerns: dentists have frequently warned of the orthodontic damage inflicted by thumbsucking, and there are many other health problems that can arise when children habitually place unwashed hands in their mouths.

So what can you do to stop it? On the whole, we’d suggest that some of the negative approaches recommended in the past – for example, covering the thumb with a bad-tasting liquid during the day or applying splints at night – may prove less than helpful. It’s never wise to call attention to the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. If you’re constantly saying, “Don’t do that!”, you’re probably only making things worse. A far more effective approach involves coming up with replacements or distractions. Give the child options. Provide other ways for him to occupy his hands and/or mouth. Get out some modeling clay or Play-doh. Encourage him to paint or draw or play a game. Buy him a squeeze ball that he can manipulate when he feels the urge to suck. The possibilities are almost endless.

If you’d like to discuss these suggestions at greater length, call our Counseling Department.


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Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership


Effective Biblical Discipline


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