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Stopping your Kid’s Bad Habits during the Coronavirus Era

March 23rd, 2020     By Kara Neuverth

Coronavirus COVID-19

​The more information coming out about the Coronavirus, the more worried you and your child might become.  Parents today must be diligent about constantly reminding children to wash their hands, use saniti​zer, and don't touch their face, especially nose, mouth, and eyes. This could be difficult if your child has a bad habit of picking their nose, touching their face or biting their nails.

So how should moms and dads respond when their children can't seem to stop the nose picking, finger licking and eye rubbing? Boys Town psychologist Trevor Bixler recommends these four steps...

  1. Reduce attention. The most intuitive response to a child demonstrating nose-picking or a similar non-hygienic behavior is “stop doing that" or “don't do that."  Ironically, we risk increasing the frequency of the behavior when we respond in this way.  Children sometimes find that they gain desired attention from a parent when their parent corrects them in this way.  Children may also experience a natural human phenomenon as becoming “hyper-aware" of sensations when we bring more attention to them.  For example, if someone starts talking about an itch on your face, you are more likely to itch your face.  If you do provide your child with immediate corrective feedback, such as “we don't use our fingers to pick our nose," it is recommended that you pair it with an identified replacement or alternative behavior. 
  2. Introduce another response that is expected.  It is necessary to teach your child how to relieve the discomfort of something blocking their nasal passage, or if they feel there is saliva they need to wipe from their mouths.  On average, we are going to recommend they use a sanitary intermediate, such as a tissue.  Teach your child to access a tissue, remove the discomfort from their nose, mouth, or eye, and wash/sanitize hands following the action.   
  3. Reinforce the incompatible response.  Once your child is demonstrating the replacement or alternative behavior, you must reward this new behavior in order for it to stay around.  Remember that habits are not easy to replace for anyone, especially not children.  If you witness your child utilizing the chosen alternative behavior, you can provide them with verbal praise or a tangible reward.  Behavioral science recommends that when you are helping a new behavior form in replacement of an old behavior, this process is called “shaping."  Most kids will need frequent, rapid reinforcement to keep the new behavior around.  If your child is learning to use a tissue and wash/sanitize hands, you may need to verbally praise them or provide them with small token/tickets to earn a prize for up to two weeks.  This will help the new behavior stick around. 
  4. Practice consistently.  Forming a replacement habit takes time.  Even if your child demonstrates the correct replacement behavior once, they may revert to an old way of responding almost overnight.  Practicing is key to getting the desired replacement behavior to stay around.  For practicing, we look to concepts such as pre-teaching and maintenance rehearsal.  If you engage in pre-teaching, you will be reviewing expectations with your child prior to needing to show the behavior.  For example, before going into the grocery store, you may rehearse how to request a tissue.  Maintenance rehearsal helps children keep the set of requirements for the behavior in mind.  For example, you may give your child fictional scenarios where someone did and didn't do the expected behavior and ask them what steps they missed or did correctly.  Drilling is also part of maintenance rehearsal.  For example, you may take 15 minutes per day over two weeks to practice placing down the remote, video game controller, or inhibiting themselves from opening a doorknob if they have not used a tissue and/or washed their hands after coming in contact with bodily fluids.  This process helps your child think more frequently about the multiple steps involved. 

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