My youngest boy is the kind of kid who develops habits. He has had a habit of sniffing for a while now.
It started with a bout of severe hayfever. I cleared up the hayfever by removing all yeast from his diet (bread, crackers, flavoured crisps, sultanas – yeast is in a lot of foods). He is now yeast intolerant, every time he has a food with yeast in it the hayfever returns with a vengeance.
With the hayfever gone, the sniffing remained.
After much harassment from his brothers about how annoying the sniffing was, the sniffing was replaced with throat clearing. Constant throat clearing.
I don’t like to do therapy on my own kids, and my husband is resistant to my tools of trade. But when my husband started to send the youngest boy out of the room and reduce his computer time every time he cleared his throat, and the effect was that the problem got worse not better, I had to step in. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
There is a tool I use in my work called “Kid’s Skills” created by Dr Ben Furman.
There are 15 steps in Kid’s Skills. These are the ones I am using for this particular problem…
State the problem, and name the opposite of the problem, the skill to be learnt.
The problem was sniffing and clearing his throat. We could not think of the opposite, so we just left it as it was.
Name the people who will support you to learn the new skill.
He named Mum, Dad, and older brother as his supporters. He said the middle brother wasn’t bothered by the problem.
Give the skill a cool name.
He called it “Demond” [sic].
Give the skill a power animal or character.
He made up a new animal called a “Spitter” and he drew it. This animal had a wolf’s head, many snake heads, a dragon’s head, and a tiger’s head , and fourteen legs.
Ask the supporters and yourself what will be better when you learn the new skill.
Older brother: I won’t get so mad at him and shout at him.
Mum: He will be a happy boy, and he’ll be able to concentrate on other things.
Boy: People won’t nag me anymore. I’ll stop being sad because Dad won’t send me out of the room.
Ask the supporters and yourself the reasons why you will learn the new skill.
Older Brother: I don’t know (in a ‘this is weird and embarrassing’ tone).
Mum: Because he is strong and clever.
Dad: Because he is clever.
Boy: Because I am a good learner. I learn quickly and easily.
Provide a code word so that if you forget your new skill your supporters can remind you by using the code word.
He said his code word will be “devil”.
How will you celebrate the acquisition of your new skill?
He said he wanted to make a chocolate cake with strawberries on top, and share it with the family.
We agreed that if he didn’t sniff or clear his throat for two days, we would have the celebration.
My oldest boy, who has really given the youngest boy a hard time over his habits, was heard gently saying “devil” to his brother. My husband doesn’t like our boys’ choice of code word, but if it is chosen by the child there is a greater commitment to it.
We haven’t had a sniff-free day yet, but the habit has been reduced by about 80%. At times he has said “Mum, I haven’t sniffed for hours”, and at other times he has said “that doesn’t count because I can’t hear myself”. Sometimes I have to call him in for a hug to bolster his resolve. Every day, he asks me to talk him through what we have written down for his kid’s skills. He started doing a low level grunting, and when I talked to him about it he said it was singing, so I suggested he make it sound like humming and he gave me the ‘thumbs up’ and a wry smile.
With kids with habits, I think there is a lot of value in paying no attention to the habit. They frequently go away in time, only to be replaced by another habit. Interestingly, my oldest boy was a habit kid too. Only this year, has he relinquished his need for a habit and he will be twelve years old in four months time.
What Kid’s Skills does is give the people around the child a different focus, one on building a skill rather than harping on the problem. The child is given a lot of agency and support to help build the new skill.