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Thumb Sucking


Question:


I would appreciate any assistance on this as my husband and I are beginning to argue about this and I am loosing ground on winning him over to positive discipline methods!
We have 4 children together 3 boys (8yrs old and twins who are 4) and my 2 soon to be 3 year old daughter.  The issue resolves around her thumb sucking.  She sucks her thumb constantly (day and night) and I have tried to talk with her, reason with her, explain to her, show her pictures, etc, to no avail.  Her teeth are already getting bent and I do not want this to get any worse.  I sucked my thumb as a child also so I know the attachment, but I also know the pain of being made fun of for having "buck teeth".  
My husband says this is all my fault because I spoil her.  He is in favor of discipline and his favorite line when the kids do something is "where's my belt!"  He does not actually hit them as they are young, but fear and punishment is what he thinks works and sees this thumb sucking as a perfect example.  He claims that he could get her to stop sucking her thumb HIS way and its my fault her teeth are getting bent. He taped her hands up before and at first she was crying and crying and then she promptly figured out a way to take the tape off.  She is something else that little miss.  I do not even want to know what else he will invent as I know he is going down the wrong path, it just seems so disrespectful and unkind!
Please tell me you have an idea on how to get her to stop sucking her thumb without traumatizing her for life!!
Very gratefully,
Concerned Mom

Answer:


Dear Concerned Mom,

My name is Penny Davis, and I am part of the team that answers questions sent to the website.  I am also a parent educator (for almost 30 years) and counselor, and the mother of two grown daughters – one who sucked her thumb as a small child, and one who sucked her middle two fingers.  Given my personal and professional experience, I can certainly understand the frustration you are feeling with your little one.  

Let’s get into your daughter’s world for a moment.  Children are always making decisions about who they are and how they fit into the world.  They want and need to know that they belong and that they are special.  We can give them that message by accepting them and loving them unconditionally, or they can get the mistaken message that they are special because our time with them is spent reminding, nagging, convincing, coaxing, trying to reason with them etc.  This happens a great deal in many families around things children do, or habits they have that parents do not like.  You talk in your letter about how many things you have tried, and how much time you have invested in trying to get your daughter to stop sucking her thumb.  Might she be deciding that this is a wonderful way to gets lots of special attention?  Another thing to keep in mind is that at age three, she is unlikely to really understand much of what you are explaining to her, in terms of rational reasons she should not do what she is doing.  Three year olds live in the present, and most thumb-sucking provides a sense of security and a way of self-soothing.
Next, let’s look at your husband’s approach, and your daughter’s response.  Children at age two to three have moved out of total dependency on parents and into a psychological stage called ‘autonomy’ which is basically the beginning of independence.  This is why ‘no’ and ‘me do it’ often become two of their most used phrases.  They want to feel that they have some power to influence their own lives.  It is important for parents to recognize and help with this, as this is the foundation of good decision-making and problem-solving, which are life skills we want our children to have by the time they are ready to leave the nest.  I’ll talk more about ways to do that in a minute, but first let’s look at what happened when your husband taped your daughters’ hands in an attempt to eliminate the thumb-sucking.  She almost immediately figured out how to undo what he had done, and continue doing what she wanted….thus, the two of them engaged in a power struggle, with each essentially saying “I’ll show you”.   Often, when we do punishing things to children, it leads to exactly this type of response, with children feeling hurt and resentful, and figuring out ways to show us that ‘we can’t boss them’.
Positive Discipline is based on the premise that in order for children to feel that they are loved and are special, we need to treat them with respect.  This does not mean permissive….it means that discipline is both kind AND firm at the same time.  We also recognize the hard truth that we often cannot MAKE other people (even children) do what they don’t want to do.  When we can do this, just because we are bigger or have more power, the cost is too great – children’s loss of self-worth, feelings of resentment, revenge, etc (which often lead to bigger, more destructive behaviors) towards parents.

Here are some ideas that I hope might help:
1.    Stop paying attention to your daughter’s thumb-sucking.  The reality is, you cannot make her stop.  She must decide to do so.  My sense is the less attention you pay to it, the less she will feel the need to keep doing it, at least so continuously.  You might even say to her very simply and kindly  “I know that sucking your thumb helps you feel safe, and I know that when you feel ready not to do it anymore, you will stop.  I love you, whether you suck your thumb or not”. Then, do not mention it again. (a note here – this behavior does not always lead to difficulties with teeth – my eldest, a thumb-sucker until age 7, has perfect teeth, my youngest, who sucked her middle fingers, did have orthodontia, but according to our dentist it was more a result of how her mouth was shaped than the sucking).  It might help, too, to just notice when she tends to suck more – is it when there’s lots of activity in the house, when she’s tired, when your attention is on other siblings?  This could give you a clue as to what ‘need’ the sucking is fulfilling, and how to help with that.  
2.    Spend time every day with your daughter that is time just for her.  I appreciate how difficult this might be, with three other children who also must demand time and attention, but it doesn’t have to be a long time – even 10 or 15 minutes spent reading with her, doing a puzzle together, or taking a short walk will help her build the sense that she is loved and important.  
3.    To help with the independence and sense of personal power, a wonderful tool to use is limited  choices (keeping age and safety in mind).  It might look like this “Would you like cereal or toast for breakfast? You choose.”   “It’s time to get in the car now – do you want to walk or should I carry you? You choose.”   This often avoids many temper tantrums and power struggles.
4.    Two and three year olds love to help – a sense of contribution is very important.  Your daughter can help fold laundry, put place mats and/or unbreakable items on the table for meal times, help with meal preparation, carry an item to the car, etc.  Too many times, by the time we WANT children to help (at age 6 or 7 for example) we have already taught them by example, that big people need to do everything, and that children are too little or incompetent to do very much.   
5.    You might find it very helpful to read one or more of the Positive Discipline books.  I would recommend the first one – ‘Positive Discipline’, and also ‘Positive Discipline, The First Three Years’.  They are available on the website, and at most bookstores.

A final thought:  I sure understand how difficult this particular habit can be, having lived with it myself (twice).  If we look long term, however, at a child’s life, we cannot always prevent them from doing things we would rather they not, nor can we ‘fix’ everything for them.  The best we can do is help them learn the skills they will need to be successful in life.  Sharing a personal example may illustrate this point for you.  When my eldest was about 6, her friends had been teasing her about the fact that she sucked her thumb, for several months.  Prior to this, she had not been concerned at all about this habit.  Over a period of weeks, we explored together her feelings when she would be teased, what she was feeling when she needed to suck her thumb, and whether she wanted to do anything about it.  She decided she did want to quit sucking her thumb.  She came up with a plan that involved gradually decreasing the habit – first she was going to try to only suck at home, and then only while watching TV, and then only at bedtime, until eventually she could break herself of this habit. She picked a favorite stuffed animal to hold while watching TV, and going to sleep.  During this time, we brainstormed together a ‘signal’ I could give to her if she forgot and began sucking in public, etc…she decided I should just put my finger on my nose, without saying anything, and that would help her stop.   In the end, after several months, and some failures, she was successful.  She was incredibly proud of herself and her accomplishment.  I was able to just be an encouraging presence in her life, hearing her feelings, supporting her and giving the message that I had faith in her ability to do what she set out to do.  I believe that message is the one that we want our children to have.

 I hope this is helpful for you.  Good luck to you.

Sincerely,

Penny Davis

Response

Penny, that is wonderful.  We have this issue in my family right now.  Of course, they won't listen to me, but I might find a way to share your response with them.  I appreciate this so much.  It is thoughtful and gentle and informative.
 
Laurie
 
 
 
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