How can we help when kids suck their thumb or have other self-focused repetitive behaviours?

I wonder if your child sucks their thumb, bites their nails, picks their skin or does some other repetitive behaviour?    

These are behaviours that kids (and adults) sometimes (unconsciously) use to manage the level of sympathetic activation or stress in their bodies when it gets too much. You might notice that at the same time, they are kind of “zoned out”, sitting or standing still, staring into space, with a blank expression on their face, and they might not be as responsive if you try to speak to them. This is the part of the nervous system that is responsive for immobilization (“Shut Down”) at work.

It can be challenging to respond to, as there is often a part of us that feels really uncomfortable to see it and just wants them to stop! But asking them to stop often does little, apart from possibly adding more stress when they cannot easily do so. And it might feel shaming to them if we let our frustration out on them. If this has happened with you, I’m sending you so much love and empathy. It can be really hard. I’ve done these things at times too.

While some parenting approaches might suggest ignoring (or even punishing) these behaviours, I feel that it is most effective to give extra love and attention when we see kids “tuning out” in this way. So perhaps taking a breath and grounding ourselves first, and then coming in with warm presence, kind words, gentle eye contact and affection. This can give a child’s nervous system a signal that all is safe, and can help them to return to a more connected state.    

When kids _zone out_ we can help by boosting their sense of safety through connection and play.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

This is a situation in which it can be helpful to first take the time to explore what comes up for us when we see our child engaging in the behaviour, because it can be almost impossible to respond in a loving and kind way when we are triggered by it. What feelings? What thoughts? Perhaps there are judgements that come up for us – about our child, about ourselves as parents? Or perhaps there are fears – about what we are afraid it might mean about them (or us)?

And if healing tears come with these thoughts or feelings, then it can be really healthy and beneficial to let them flow. The same for any laughter, shaking, or raging, or any other way that the body wants to move through the sensations that arise in our bodies in order to shift any sympathetic activation in our nervous system. We will then be better placed to respond in a calm, relaxed, and connected manner next time we see our child engaging in the behaviour.

It can also be super helpful if we can initiate some playfulness around the behaviour, mindfully and respectfully, not making fun of it, but instead joining our child in the behaviour. Perhaps saying playfully, “Oh, that looks like hard work! Would you like me to help you with that?”, and then coming in close, and gently nuzzling their hand. Laughter is a great way for both children and parents to release stress (sympathetic activation in the body), as well as boost connection and emotional safety.

Playfulness can also be a really powerful way of conveying to our child a sense of acceptance when they are engaging in these kinds of behaviours. It can be so reassuring and healing for a child to feel loved through all of their behaviours, especially if they’ve been responded to in less empathic ways at other times. And it can feel so wonderful and connecting as a parent to feel able to respond in such a supportive way too.        

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