Is your kid a nose picker? Experts explain why they can't stop 'digging for gold' — and how to kick the habit.
After a long day at work you get home and your kiddo comes running up to you. The best part? His finger is in his nose — you know, "digging for gold."
If nose picking and the boogers that either get gobbled up (retch) or wiped on your couch (gag) are a recurring problem in your family, read on.
As you’ve probably guessed, children pick their nose when something doesn’t feel right. According to Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician and founder and chief executive officer of Happiest Baby, nose picking is a perfectly normal toddler and preschool behavior, even it grosses others out.
“Your tot might be 'digging for gold' out of boredom or curiosity about their little bodies, or maybe they just have a stuffy nose or an itch up there,” says Karp.
Aside from curiosity, Shannon Tripp, a registered pediatric nurse, adds that nose picking could be due to allergies, stress and other discomfort. Karp agrees, noting that “if your child is picking their nose a lot, it may be because their nose is especially dry. If you suspect this to be true, they may benefit from a cool-mist humidifier in their bedroom. The cool, moist air will work to loosen dried mucus, making it easier to blow out.”
And what's the appeal of eating boogers? “Little kids are very curious and love to explore with their mouths, putting almost anything in there,” explains Karp. “Children also pick their nose and eat it because boogers are salty and, as gross as it sounds, it may taste good to them.”
Additionally, children may eat their boogers simply because it’s an easy way to get rid of them after they’ve scooped them out of their nose. It may sound gross to adults, but it makes sense for a child.
Now here's the big question: How can parents put a stop to nose picking? Here's what experts say.
Don’t shame them
While your knee-jerk response might be to say, “stop that” or “eww, that’s gross” you’ll want to steer clear from shaming language.
“Shaming your child strips them of their dignity, which not only isn’t nice ... it doesn’t usually work,” says Karp. “It’s more effective to keep your words positive and focused on what you want your child to do, instead of the behavior you want them to stop.”
For example, you can ask questions like, “Is your nose itchy?” or “Can I get you a tissue?” This will help your child indicate what they are needing and feeling in that moment to address the issue at hand.
Teach about natural consequences
Aside from nose picking being visually unappealing, there are natural consequences that can occur as a result, such as spreading germs.
“Boogers — whether hard, squishy, or slimy — are clumps of mucus, dirt, dead skin cells, other particles … and germs,” says Karp. “So, if your little one is wiping their boogers on themselves, the furniture, their stuffed toys, anything, they’re spreading germs, which can make others sick.”
Karp recommends trying the following statements when talking about natural consequences of nose picking: “Picking your nose can spread germs and make people sick, and we want to keep ourselves and our friends healthy,” or “Picking your boogers can make your nose bleed, which doesn’t feel good.”
Teach good manners
If your child has nailed “please and thank you,” then with some time they’ll be able to master (or at least comprehend) etiquette around nose picking. While asking for a tissue or blowing your nose seems like second nature to an adult, it’s important to remember that kids need to be taught not only how to ask for this, but also how to do it.
“Teach them the proper way to blow and wipe their nose with a tissue, gently and thoroughly, and praise them when done correctly,” says Tripp. “Children should also be taught to wash their hands after each time.”
Karp suggests turning the process of teaching your kid how to blow their nose into a game. “You can also play a game with a little strip of tissue (like a little white squiggle),” he adds. “With your child watching, close your mouth and hold the little white squiggle under your nose and see if you can blow on it — just with air from your nose — and make it 'wave in the wind.' Then ask if your child would like to try to wave the little white squiggle, too!”
Parents might also introduce the idea of setting boundaries. If a child has the urge to pick their nose, they can excuse themselves to do so in the bathroom, washing their hands afterwards. Make it seem like a private action, versus something that is appropriate to do in public or around others. A recent post by Curious Parenting noted that many adults still pick their nose, but do so in private. If your efforts to curb nose picking don't click, parents could try framing nose picking as a relatable urge that many of us have, but one that we only act on when we're alone or in the bathroom (like, say, going poop or getting undressed). So long as hands get washed and boogers aren't getting flicked or swiped around, a little discrete nose exploration isn't the worst thing in the world.
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