Bad habits: we all have them. While most are phases our kids will naturally outgrow, some habits are harmful and can carry into adulthood. As a parent—and long-time nail-biter—I’m determined to help my son kick his own bad habits before they stick.

Breaking Bad Habits

Figuring out the underlying reason for a repetitive behaviour is the first step in eliminating it. Is your child picking their nose because they are bored, stressed, or tired? Is sucking their thumb soothing for your child?

Our instinct as parents is to call out and even punish these annoying and antisocial behaviours. However, this tactic usually backfires, and may even make matters worse.

Some tips on how to handle five common childhood bad habits:

1. Nose picking

At some point most little kids will poke an exploratory finger up their nostril. Some will smear on the nearest surface while others will decide to eat their snot. My son proudly picks and eats his own boogers, and it makes me crazy! While it’s hard to put on a poker face, try to refrain from using the words “gross,” “yucky,” or “disgusting.” Instead teach your child that nose picking causes nosebleeds and spreads germs, increasing the risk of viruses and other infections, like pinkeye.

Try this:
Acquaint your child with the tissue box and show them how to use it. Run a humidifier or dab petroleum jelly along the nasal passage with a cotton swab. Keeping nasal passages moist may help your child resist the urge to poke and pick.

2. Hair twirling

Chronic hair twirling or hair pulling has a fancy name—trichotillomania. Usually harmless, in severe cases hair pulling can lead to bald spots. Again, punishment rarely works. Nor do rewards or bribes.

Try this:
Check out these quick tips to keep fingers busy. Consider counselling to get to the root (no pun) of the issue, which could be anxiety or depression.

3. Thumb sucking

It’s no surprise that my son became a thumb sucker. I was, too. After all, babies automatically do it to soothe themselves in times of stress or boredom. It only becomes problematic when the habit lingers beyond the preschool years. Thumb and finger sucking increases the risk of infection from germs. Sores and calluses can form, leaving skin painful and raw. Past age six, thumb sucking can cause permanent damage to teeth, necessitating (in the case of yours truly!) extensive orthodontic treatment.

Try this:
Keep idle hands busy. Distraction works much better than punitive tactics like bitter nail polish or wearing mittens indoors. Again, it may be worth digging deeper and consulting your child’s pediatrician to determine potential stress and anxiety.

4. Masturbation

Catching your child touching or rubbing their genitals can be embarrassing, but it’s natural and innocent. When kids discover a pleasurable sensation, they want to repeat it. By far the biggest concern regarding early masturbation is our reaction to it. Making a child feel naughty or ashamed can have lasting emotional effects. And if you’re stuck, there are plenty of good children’s books about sexuality.

Try this:
Teach your child all the body parts using their correct names. Then explain that although touching genitals feels good, it should be done in private. Having said that, if your child masturbates compulsively, it may be worth discussing with their pediatrician.

5. Nail biting

Usually kids don’t even realize they are biting their nails. I still catch myself picking at my cuticles while engrossed in work or TV. Unfortunately nail biting breeds more nail biting as nails become brittle and uneven.

And take it from me, nails bitten down to the quick really hurt. There is also the potential for bleeding and infection. Avoid drawing attention to the nails or your child’s “disgusting” habit.

Try this:
As with thumb sucking, it’s a good idea to keep hands occupied with fidgets in times of boredom or stress. Keeping nails neatly manicured may help your child avoid the temptation to pick and nibble. Sometimes a clear nail polish can strengthen and protect brittle nails.

Bear in mind that habits are hard to break—even for us grownups. So try to be supportive and patient with your child. If ignoring the behaviour doesn’t cut it out, consider any underlying stressors at school or at home. Be sure to provide extra cuddles and positive attention. Explain the facts about the habit, but know that nagging or criticizing your child will not only hurt their self-esteem, in all likelihood it will reinforce the very behaviour you are trying to change.

Julie M Green is a freelance writer and featured blogger at Huffington Post and Yummy Mummy Club. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Today’s Parent, the Globe and Mail and Parents Canada. Over the years she has given interviews for CTV, CBC and BBC Radio, and HuffPost Live.

She lives in Toronto with her family—an Irish expat hubby, a crazy bulldog, and an amazing 8-year-old son with autism.

Follow her journey at Spectrum Parenting or via Twitter.