Picking—especially nose-picking—is pretty normal toddler and preschool behaviour. It might be born out of boredom, curiosity about their little bodies, or maybe they just have a stuffy sneezer or itchy skin! But whether due to the ick-factor or worries that all this picking might be harmful (for example, if a child picks to the point of bleeding), picking is a habit that parents are often eager to curb. Fortunately, there are several tools to quash this bad habit.

Connect with respect

When you point out the behaviour you’re trying to curb (your child’s picking), it’s very important to connect with respect. Choose your words carefully; shaming your child strips him of his dignity, which can work against you.

  • When discussing picking with your child, kneel down, getting a little below your child’s eye level. This helps make your child feel respected.
  • Always criticize the behaviour, not the child. Say, “Picking your nose is yucky,” rather than, “Bad girl.”
  • Teach your child the consequences of the behaviour: “Picking your skin can give you boo-boos, see how red your hand is right here? Mommy doesn’t want to see you hurt yourself.” Or: “Picking your nose can spread germs and make people sick, and we want to keep ourselves and our friends healthy.”
  • Keep your words positive by focusing on what you want your child to do instead of the behaviour you want them to stop. “Your nose looks itchy, can I get you a tissue?” Or: “You look like you need something to do with your hands, why don’t you play with this toy?”

Encourage the behaviour you want to see

One of the most effective ways to change a toddler’s behaviour is to flash a green light of encouragement on the behaviour you want to see. In this case: no picking. Here are a few ways to encourage your toddler or preschooler to stop picking:

  • Give praise. Praise your child when you see her stop herself from picking, or when you notice she’s gone for a long stretch of time without picking.
  • Gossip about good behaviour. Gossip means saying things out loud near your child so that she overhears you…which makes your words of praise much more effective than if you’d delivered them directly. (This works for adults too! Just think how much more easily you take to heart a friend’s compliment is if you overhear it, versus if they say it to your face!) To use gossip to curb skin-, scab- or nose-picking, you might loudly whisper to your little one’s teddy bear, “I love the way Joey started to pick his nose and then stopped, all by himself!” Later on, repeat the same praise to someone else. He’ll begin to think, wow, I must be really doing a good job because I’m hearing this a lot lately.
  • Use a star chart. For toddlers ages 2 and up, a star chart can be a great way to reward the behaviour you want to see. I typically recommend choosing three behaviours to track with your star chart—two your child is already doing (like washing hands or brushing teeth) and one behaviour you’d like to change (going all day without picking). During a calm moment, sit your tot down and discuss some of the things he’s been doing well, and then mention that you want to help him do even better. Let him know that for each day he goes without picking, you’ll add a star to the chart. Once he gets 10 stars on the chart, give him a special reward (like a treat, stickers, or something else he enjoys).
  • Offer small rewards. If you think your child needs more instant gratification, instead of a star chart, you might offer a small incentive at the end of a day of no picking. Or, another approach might be to start your tot off with a bag of 2-3 poker chips in the morning. Every time your tyke picks his nose or skin, he has to give one up, but if he makes it through the day with his poker chips intact, he gets a small prize for each chip.

A mild consequence: clap-growl warnings

If all else fails, you can rely on a mild consequence called clap-growl warnings, which I use to curb annoying behaviour. When you see your child picking, clap your hands 3 to 4 times and let out a deep growl. This usually stops behaviour dead in its tracks! When your child heeds your warning, reward her immediately with praise. As your child gets older, you’ll do less growling, but you may continue to use a clap or a silent cue, like a frown or pointed finger, to issue your warning.

Article by Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, CEO, Happiest Baby

RECOMMENDED BOOK PURCHASE: Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One- to Four-year-old

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About The Author

Dr Harvey Karp
Pediatrician & Child Dev Expert

Dr. Harvey Karp is a world-renown paediatrician and child development expert. His celebrated Happiest Baby/Happiest Toddler books and videos have guided millions of parents and are translated into 30 languages. He is also the creator of the SNOO Smart Sleeper, a new class of responsive infant bed that adds 1-2 hours to a baby’s sleep and reduces the risk of infant sleep death by preventing dangerous rolling. SNOO has won over 20 top international honors, including the National Sleep Foundation Innovation of the Year and is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution as an iconic example of 21st Century form and function. The benefits of SNOO to reduce postpartum depression, SIDS, drug exposed babies are being studied at top medical centers. Dr. Karp is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the AAP. He is an advocate for children’s environmental health and a board member of EWG, one of the Nation’s premiere environmental protection groups.

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