Insomnia and Sleep Issues

You may have thought that you would be finished putting your kids to sleep once they emerged from the pre-school years. Think again! The reality is that even school-age children often need to be settled to sleep. This age group suffers from various sleep challenges like excess energy and difficulty winding down or over-excitement, or anxiety or other troubled emotions. Many kids cannot fall asleep, others sleep fitfully and others wake several times a night. And given that the responsibilities of being a student require that kids are not just physically awake but are also mentally alert during the day, parents will want to help their kids sleep well at night. A good night’s rest is important to academic success. Parents can do much to help their youngsters achieve this goal.

In this article, we will discuss some tips and strategies parents can use to help school-age children fall asleep. We will start off by discussing what might be preventing your child from getting a good night’s sleep.

Possible deterrents to sleep include:

Physical Discomfort
Being too hot or too cold can interfere with sleep. An environment that is too noisy may also cause sleep problems for some adults and children. Babies can’t tell you about their comfort levels, unfortunately. When they cry, however, you might try adjusting their blankets or clothing to see if it makes a difference. Opening or closing a window, adjusting lights, shutting or opening the door – any of these environmental changes might make a positive difference.

Deflated and Elated Emotions
Depressing and troubling situations like death in the family, or very good news like winning the lottery (or another exciting development), makes the body produce chemistry that may linger beyond the time we need at which we normally go to sleep. We only need to settle this chemistry back to normal in order to put both the mind and the body to rest and eventually enter the state of sleep. Babies who’ve had an unusually active day may be more alert at night even though parents may think that they should be more exhausted than usual. Similarly, children may have trouble settling down after a particularly exciting day at the amusement part. Teenagers who are prone to experience strong emotions relating to their social lives may also have trouble settling down; too much chemistry is running through their bodies. Parents going through stress or trauma inevitably have sleeping challenges, as do those who experience tremendously positive events. Most of these kinds of sleep issues are temporary.

If a noisy mind, emotional stress, or agitated emotions are what’s keeping your child (or yourself) up at night, you may wish to consider Bach Flower Remedies. Try “Rescue Sleep” – a mixture of Bach Remedies available at health food stores and online, consult a Bach practitioner for an individually tailored remedy, or learn more about Bach Flowers on this site. Another  fast and effective intervention for emotional stress is EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique. You can learn this technique  yourself from Internet resources and books or you can consult a therapist who uses this technique in the clinical setting.  You can treat your child with it before bedtime, spending only a couple of minutes to release anxiety and stress or, you can teach an older child how to use the technique independently. Stress that doesn’t respond to self-help can be addressed effectively by a mental health professional.

Change in Sleeping Pattern
Our sleeping pattern is determined by our daily routine. As we normally sleep at a certain time everyday, our body gets used to this pattern and eventually remind us to sleep at that particular time, the same way we get hungry during lunch or dinner time. It does this by producing sleep hormones. When we suddenly try to change our time of sleep, we find it hard because our body is not used to producing sleep hormones at that time. When you change your child’s sleep time (as in the seasonal changing of the clock) be prepared for a week or so of poor sleep. Similarly, when you remove your toddler’s nap time, or go on vacation – expect disrupted sleep patterns. When the new pattern is established, sleep will be restored.

Change in Environment
Just as the body is affected by sleeping routine, it gets used to certain sleep settings. When we switch beds or when we put the lights on when we’re used to sleeping with the lights out, our body takes time to adapt to this new setting. We’ll go through sleepless nights and days before our body gets used to the new environment. When you change sleep locations due to vacations and visits, expect sleep disruption. When you move to a new house or even change your room within your old one, expect some sleep disturbance for a couple of weeks. Children and adults are similarly affected. Be patient and wait for the body to adjust.

Chemicals
Substances like caffeine and nicotine, as well as certain medications with stimulating effects enhance the activity of the brain. Take chemicals into consideration when serving kids food in the evening (cut down on sugar, caffeine, food colorings and highly processed snacks).

Over-stimulation
In the hour before bedtime, wild behavior, intense exercise, scary or intense media and other sources of stimulation can make it hard for kids and teens to settle down. It’s best to use that pre-sleep hour for calming the body and mind, rather than rousing it up!

Strategies for promoting sleep include:

Change the Bedtime
“Bedtime” is the time at which a person is tired enough to go to sleep. If you’ve set a 7:30p.m. bedtime for your child who isn’t sleepy until 9, then consider the possibility that you’ve set the wrong bedtime. Not all kids need the same amount of sleep. Some children, like some adults, can get by well on fewer hours than you might think is normal. Maybe you thought that every kid needs 9 hours sleep, but it turns out that YOUR child only needs 7! If your child can get up in the morning fairly easily and function well at school all day and maintain a decent mood until the evening, then he or she is getting enough sleep. But what if your child ISN’T doing well on just 7 hours, but has to get up for school on time anyways and still isn’t tired at the time that would allow him or her to get those important extra hours of sleep? In other words, what if your child does need  8 or 9 hours sleep but is only getting 7?   If this is the case, you haven’t set the bedtime too early. You need to find a way to help the child feel more tired at the right time.

You can Increase the Child’s Sleepiness
Some parents find that they can “tire their child out” by making sure the youngster has had plenty of fresh air and exercise in the daytime. Although this doesn’t work for every kid, it might work for yours – so give it a try. Encourage your older child to do sports, dance or other forms of exercise after school each day. Take your younger child to the park if possible, or for swimming lessons, skating lessons, karate or other active sports or physical activities. Try to arrange outdoor time – walking to and from school or friends or lessons. Try not to drive the child everywhere – let him or her walk or bike instead.

Teach Your Child to Relax and Wind Down for Sleep
To help ready a child for sleep, reduce stimulation in the half hour or hour before bedtime. Help the child turn his or her attention away from the activities of the day toward a quieting down, readying for sleep focus. You can teach the child (or have someone else teach the child – like a yoga teacher or a psychological practitioner) how to use the breath to induce deep relaxation and restfulness. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response is one excellent breathing tool that is so simple even very young children can use it and so effective that it helps people of all ages learn to deeply relax and fall asleep. The technique involves breathing normally, but on the “out” breath, think the number “one.” That’s all there is to it. Yet breathing this way for a few minutes, alters all the rhythms of the body and mind and settles them into patterns conducive to profound relaxation or sleep.

Try Natural Sleep Aids
There is a reason why parents give their kids milk before going to bed. Milk has a very calming effect on a drinker, and taking it before going to sleep can help facilitate some zzz’s. You may also consider natural herbs that are known for helping people get a good night’s rest. There are many herbal preparations (teas, lollipops, syrups) that are safe and healthy for kids. A special blend with sedative properties can be prepared by a professional herbalist or you might be able to find a pre-mixed blend in your local health-food store or on-line. The more days the herb is used, the stronger its effects become. Sometimes the herb is to be taken in the evening to help the child to unwind, and sometimes the herb is taken during the day, to help the entire nervous system become more calm and settled, which will facilitate normal bedtime sleepiness in the evening. Consult a herbalist to learn about which herbs are appropriate for children or teens and which ones should be avoided. Learn about dosage and safety issues.

Nutritional supplements can have similar effects. Some feeds are sedative and calming in nature and can even induce fatigue. Arrange a consultation with a holistic nutritionist or dietician who may be able to guide you. Naturopaths may also be able to advise you on the selection of foods and nutritional supplements that can help calm and settle the child or teen for sleep. Similarly, homeopaths, acupuncturists, Bach Flower practitioners and other types of alternative healers may be able to offer interventions that can improve your child’s circadian rhythms (sleep cycle), or help relax an overactive body or mind.

Consult a Doctor
Sometimes a doctor will prescribe melatonin to help the child experience fatigue at the right time. If the child’s wakefulness is caused by ADHD, medications can be altered or added to induce sleepiness. Other physical and mental health conditions that cause the child to be hyperalert can also be addressed with medication.

Create a “Parking Bay” for Nightly Concerns
There are occasions when kids have trouble sleeping because they have so many worries about the next day. If this is the case, parents can help their child by starting a ritual of listing down all these worries before going to bed. Create a pact: once a concern is listed on paper or on a white board, it means that it is to be temporarily set aside until the next day. This way your child gets to unload from their mind all the things that are bothering them before going to bed. However, after writing down worries, be sure to write down some positive thoughts, memories of the day and things to look forward to. You want to help the brain go to sleep peacefully and happily.

Set a Schedule
You know how kids are with their assignments; if you leave your child to accomplish their homework when they want to, they will play all afternoon and evening, and then try to finish their assignments way into the night! If you want your school-age child to sleep on time, set a regular time for homework and a regular time — with justified limitations — for their play. If kids are conditioned from an early age that the day ends at bed time, then they are less likely to stay up well into the night. Make the transition to bedtime with a period of quiet time – bathing, stretching, reading in bed. Teach your child a few yoga postures and breathing patterns to dispell stress and physical tension.

Be Strict about Lights Out Policy
Lastly, one effective way parents can get their children to sleep on time is to implement a daily lights out policy at a reasonable bed time. Lights outs should include no computer or TV time after bedtime. In a house of parents and teens,  everyone may go to bed at the same time – or not!. However, when there are younger kids in the family, there will always be several different bedtimes going on. As each person hits their bedtime zone, everything must quiet down around them. The quiet and stillness itself is a cue to the brain to settle down and get ready for sleep.

Consult a Mental Health Professional
If you have done all you can to help your child establish good sleep habits but your child is still having trouble falling asleep, then make an appointment with a mental health professional who can guide you further.

Child Won’t Go to Bed

There are some young children who can’t wait to get into bed at night – but they are few and far between! It is far more common for children of all ages to try to stay up later than their bedtime, whatever that bedtime might be. In fact, a lot of adults have the same problem! Everyone wants just a little more time to finish playing that game, reading that book, watching that movie or whatever. Maybe it’s not a bad thing – at least everyone who wants to avoid bedtime is excited about life and all that it has to offer!

However, there is one down side to all this wakefulness: daytime fatigue. Kids (and adults) who go to bed too late, often have trouble getting up in the morning and/or functioning well during the day. Physical health and emotional well-being also tend to suffer when there is long term sleep deprivation. As everyone knows, lack of sleep can cause irritability and impaired decision-making. All in all, a shortage of sleep cannot be recommended. Kids NEED to go to bed on time.

If your child isn’t cooperating with his or her set bedtime, consider the following tips:

Set a Realistic Bedtime According to the Unique Needs of the Child
Children – like adults – have varying needs for sleep. Some children and teens function best on 9 or 10 hours sleep, while others do very well on 7 or 8 hours. When a child can wake up on time in the morning with little struggle and function well during the day, maintaining appropriate focus, good health and a decent mood, then he or she is getting enough sleep. On the other hand, a child who can’t wake up in the morning, is always late due to sleeping in, is chronically ill, cranky and/or underfunctioning, and is simply not getting enough sleep. Specific health issues also impact on the amount of sleep needed. For instances, many kids with ADD/ADHD and other biological disorders seem to have more trouble settling down to sleep or staying asleep at night – they may do better with a later bedtime. Wake your child up at the same time every day – the time that is most appropriate for getting to school on time after getting dressed and eating breakfast. If your child does well, he or she is currently getting enough sleep. Therefore, continue with whatever bedtime you have established. If your child is struggling, create an earlier bedtime.

In setting an appropriate bedtime, try to find a time which is only a few minutes away from the child’s ability to fall asleep. For instance, if you set a 9 p.m. bedtime, your child should easily fall asleep somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes later. You may permit your child to read until he or she gets tired. You would establish “lights out” by 9:30. However, if you put your child to sleep at 9 and he or she remains awake tiil 10 or later (despite your “lights out at 9:30” policy), the bedtime is much too early. This is true only when you have been consistently waking the child at the same time every day (the ideal time for getting ready for school).

Be Consistent
Once you establish a reasonable bedtime, be sure to stick to it. Try not to change it except on very special occasions such as vacations or holidays.

Reduce Stimulation
Parents can help their kids go to bed by helping them to wind down for the night. Reduce the excitement available around the house about one hour before your child’s desired bedtime. This means implement rules like “computer is off one hour before bedtime” and “no movies or T.V. in the hour before bedtime” and “no snacks larger than a single non-caffeinated beverage an hour before bedtime.” Your goal is to help the child’s nervous system settle down. You might permit the reading of books or the doing of puzzles in the hour because these activities are both interesting and fatiguing. They involve mental work and therefore exhaust the mind after awhile.

Help Your Child Get Ready for Sleep
For children under 10, expect to spend 45min to an hour helping your child settle down to sleep using a daily sleep routine. This routine normally includes a bedtime snack, bath, teeth brushing, getting into pj’s, and story time or talking time. Depending on the age of your child, you may follow all this with a good night kiss and allow the child to read on his or her own for awhile longer (until “lights out”), or you may actually dim the lights and lie down quietly with the child for another 10 or 20 minutes until the child has drifted off to sleep, or you may sit in the child’s room with lights off until the child falls asleep.

Address Your Child’s Fears
Some children are afraid to sleep in their own rooms alone. Help your child to feel safe and comfortable by leaving night lights on, providing intercom, and/or comfort toys. The Bach Flower Remedies Aspen (for fear of the dark, monsters and ghosts) and Mimulus (for fear of robbers or being separated from parents) can be helpful. These can be purchased from any health food store. Two drops of each in a small amount of liquid (water, milk, juice, etc) given 4 times a day, can help erradicate night time fears. (See more on Bach Flowers in the Bach Flower article on this site.)

Use the CLeaR Method to Reinforce Cooperation
When your child is cooperative with any step of the bedtime routine, acknowledge this. “I see you got your pajamas on already!” or “You came right away when I called!” This is the “C” step of the CLeaR Method (“comment”). Use an appropriate label (the “L” step of the CLeaR Method). “That was so Speedy!”  “You’re such a good Listener!”  For settling into bed at the end of the routine, consider using a reward (the “R” step of the CLeaR Method). “Since you went to sleep so nicely, you can have your special cereal/muffins/T.V. program or whatever in the morning.” Learn how to use the CLeaR Method step by step in “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice” by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.)

Create a Reward Chart for Younger Kids
If bedtime problems have been chronic or severe, more intense corrective measures can be taken. One such measure is the use of reward charts. Sit down with your child and design a reward-based program of encouragement. Design something that has an escalating system of points and rewards. For instance, if your child currently NEVER cooperates with bedtime, suggest that each struggle-free night earn a special small treat in the next day’s lunch or a special small privilege to occur after school the next day. As the child becomes more compliant, put him or her on a point system, having the child earn 2 points (one for each struggle-free night) and a larger prize (for instance – a $2.00 chocolate treat or gift at the dollar store). When the child can easily earn 2 points in a row, raise the bar: have 3 points be necessary for a prize – but again, the prize is better than the previous ones (for instance, a $3.00 treat or gift at the dollar store). Then have the child earn 5 points for an even better payoff (i.e $5.00 worth of goodies) and then 5 in a row (i.e. a special one-on-one outing with Mom or Dad), 7 points (a trip to the toy store to buy some small item) and finally – for the final GRAND PRIZE – 7 struggle-free nights in a row (which earns a fantastic gift or privilege that the child has long pined for).

Similarly, uncooperative pre-teens and teens can be positively encouraged to get into bed on time. Again, set up the “payoffs” with the youngsters themselves. Say something like the following, “I really don’t want to ask you to get to bed more than once in a night. I’d be willing to work with you to help you get out of the habit of delaying your bedtime. For instance, perhaps there’s some privilege or material object that could be an incentive. I know you’ve had your eye on that new (app, purse, digital whatever). I’d be happy to give you five (two, or whatever) dollars  for every night that you just go peacefully and promptly off to bed. In two weeks (or a month…) you’d be able to buy yourself that (whatever) from that money alone! Incentives do not have to be material objects. Work with your child to see what the child would find motivating. Using incentives is a jumpstart for changing the bedtime habits of your youngster – it is not meant to be a permanent way of life! Once the child is in the habit of going to bed on time and cooperatively, it’s just a whole lot easier for him or her to continue doing it.

Use Discipline if Necessary
If all the “nice” techniques haven’t led to improvement in bedtime cooperation, now is the time to use formal discipline. Display a “no-nonsense” attitude regarding the bedtime. After the child’s bedtime has arrived, follow the rule that the child may no longer call for you or leave his or her room (unless there is a true emergency). If the child calls out or leaves the bed, use the 2X-Rule. Tell the child, “you must stay in your room quietly once your bedtime has arrived.” When the child calls out or leaves the room, repeat the rule and add the warning of a negative consequence. This can be any consequence, but a good one for bedtime problems is “from now on, when you call out or leave your room, you will have to stand against the wall for (the number of minutes of the child’s age, minus 2). Then you’ll go back to bed. Each time you call out, you’ll have to stand against the wall again, but for 1 minute longer than before.” (If the child is 7 years old or older, the increases can be 2 minutes more each time). Normally, this cures the child’s bedtime issues within a couple of days. If the child refuses to stand against the wall, review the instructions for applying the 2X-Rule in the discipline section on this site (and in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe ).

If you have picked a different consequence (i.e. “no cookies in your lunch tomorrow”), you will have to handle it differently. To begin with, consequences that occur “tomorrow” require waiting. Once the child has left the room and received the consequence, there is nothing more that you can do TONIGHT. The child may now wander around the house all night. This is because you only get to pick ONE consequence. If the one you picked is happening tomorrow, then you have to wait until tomorrow and then apply the consequence (and make sure that you DO apply it!). Use the same consequence at least 3 times before deciding whether or not it is effective. If after the third use, the child is still calling out or getting out of bed, you know that the consequence is not effective. Choose a different one and start again. See “Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice” by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for detailed instructions on how to create and employ negative consequences.

Refrain from Showing Anger or Irritation
Bedtime should be a pleasant time for a child. Try your hardest not to raise your voice in order to scare your child into bed at night. If, after trying all approaches, your child is still refusing to go to bed, consult a parenting consultant or psychologist for assistance. There can be complicating factors you are not aware of and/or more strategies to try.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Parents may wonder if their child has OCD when they notice that the child seems overly occupied with worries and strange behaviors. If the parent has seen something similar in another family member who has already been diagnosed with OCD, he or she may suspect that this child may also have the disorder.  Other parents have no such frame of reference and are simply perplexed by their youngster’s behavior.

Small children are often anxious and ritualistic – they want their parents to give them 10 kisses at bedtime and stay with them the whole night! It’s very difficult for a parent to know whether such behavior is just normal childish behavior or something that requires professional attention. However, when a child starts demanding 24 kisses – exactly 12 on one cheek and 12 on the other – a parent may become suspicious. It doesn’t “feel” or “sound” right to him or her. The only way to know if the child’s feelings and actions are within the normal range is to obtain a proper assessment.

A  diagnosis  of OCD can only be confirmed or dis-confirmed by a qualified mental health professional. If you are concerned about your child, talk to your family doctor or pediatrician – this person can refer you to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist for an assessment. OCD will not normally be diagnosed unless the symptoms are causing the child significant distress or unless they are affecting the child’s school life, social life or home life adversely. Even if the child is diagnosed with OCD, there is much to be hopeful about: there are excellent behavioral treatments for OCD. People who receive treatment have a good recovery rate.

What is OCD?
OCD involves obsessions and compulsions (also called “rituals”). Obsessions are “sticky” thoughts – thoughts that just won’t go away (at least not by themselves). A teenager might obsess about whether she remembered to lock the door. Instead of just leaving the house like others do, she thinks about that door, asking herself over and over again if she remembered to lock it. Obsessions can also be sensations – a type of feeling. For instance, a child might pull his sock up over and over again until it hits a spot on the leg that feels “just right.” His mother might say that he is obsessed with getting just the right spot and she would be correct – the youngster cannot tolerate the feeling of the sock being at the wrong spot. Compulsions are actions that a person does that either “undoes” an obsession or ends it in some way. Spending lots of time arranging the socks is a compulsion. The teenager who is obsessing about whether or not she remembered to lock the door, may go back to the house 2, 3, or more times “to make sure.” The ritual of checking is called a compulsion.

A common obsession has to do with the fear of becoming contaminated. This may involve a fear of germs. “I don’t want to touch the money because everyone else has touched the money and it probably is full of germs and germs are dangerous.” Equally common is the ritual of excessive washing in order to clean oneself of germs or contamination. “My daughter washes her hands until they bleed.” This is not normal washing that is meant to remove surface dirt; rather this is OCD washing that is meant to remove spiritual impurities that can harm a person. In fact, in order not to HAVE to wash oneself, OCD sufferers start to avoid being near problematic triggers. For instance, they might only handle money while wearing gloves (so their hands won’t touch the contaminated money and they will then not have to wash off the contamination). Or, they  may not open a door with their hand – they might use a foot or an elbow or ask someone else to open it. Avoidance actually contributes to the illness – the more a person avoids OCD triggers, the stronger the illness of OCD becomes. In fact, the major aspect of treating OCD involves teaching the sufferer to avoid avoidance! A child must be helped to confront and live with his or her worst fears.

Most obsessions center around issues of health, safety, goodness and cleanliness. As stated above, they can also center around certain “right” feelings (like the feeling of having a shoe lace tied up “just right”).

For instance, children and teens can obsess about the idea they have might have made a religious error. To “fix” it they might pray for hours on end (missing school in the process). Some people want to do things perfectly; a child may write something, erase it, write it again, erase it, write it again, over and over and over again – destroying the paper and taking hours to perform a task that other children are completing in minutes. Some people with OCD need to have everything in a certain order – for example, in order from biggest to smallest. Again, trying to get it that way can take painful hours; if the order is messed up by someone else, the person with OCD can become hysterical. These are just some of the common variations of OCD. There are many others and each person can have his or her own unique version of the disorder.

Treatment for a religious obsession might be insisting that the youngster DOES NOT pray for more than the normal few minutes that prayer takes a healthy person. In other words, the youngster must just live with the worry that perhaps she did something wrong. Instead of making that worry go away by praying excessively, she must just have the worry without doing anything to fix it or end it. This sort of treatment has the effect of stopping the worry altogether. Therefore, no more excessive praying is required. No obsession leads to no ritual which essentially is no OCD.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
People who suffer from OCD, even kids, usually know that their thoughts and actions are irrational, and they often feel distressed over their lack of control. The obsessions and compulsions, however, feel more powerful than a person’s will. The obsessive compulsive person is trapped in a vicious cycle; he or she needs to behave a certain way (perform a ritualistic behavior) to relive stress and anxiety, but the behavior itself creates more stress and anxiety. This can lead to intense attempts to avoid situations that will trigger the compulsion. For instance, if someone knows that touching a doorknob will create anxiety that can only be soothed by repeated washing of the hands, then he will try not to touch the doorknob. Instead, he might ask someone else to open the door, or he might open it with his elbow or he might wear gloves in order to open it. The time it takes to perform rituals can severely affect a person’s life and the difficulty of avoiding triggers can make a person function in a very odd way. OCD is thus very stressful. Attempts to manage OCD can sometimes lead to other mental health complications, such as clinical depression, other anxiety disorders, substance abuse and/or other impulse-control issues. OCD is sometimes found in people who have other clinical disorders like anorexia, Tourette’s Syndrome or ADD/ADHD.

What Causes  OCD?
Current thinking suggests that that OCD is a biologically- based condition, possibly the result of serotonin deficiency in the brain and other chemical conditions. It has been observed that OCD tends to run in families (that is, other family members have OCD or they may have other anxiety disorders) and therefore it is thought that a vulnerability for the condition is passed on through the genes.  OCD can also occur in a form called PANDAS  (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder) – when it suddenly appears following a streptococcal infection like strep throat. In this case it is believed that OCD is triggered by the same bacteria that causes scarlet fever and strep throat. Again, it might be that a person must have the vulnerable genes in order for the bacteria to have this effect.

What is the Treatment for OCD?
OCD is best treated with CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Although some teens and adults can relieve their own symptoms with self-help by reading books on OCD (see for instance, “Overcoming Compulsive Washing” or “Overcoming Compulsive Checking” by Dr. Munford), most people will have the best results by consulting a qualified mental health professional who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of OCD. Ask your doctor for a referral. Parents should read up on OCD and get professional counseling to know how to best help their child. Uninformed parents often accidently worsen OCD by helping the child AVOID triggers. As we saw above, EXPOSURE to the frightening element is curative – NOT avoidance! Parents need to know exactly how to help their child or teen in the home setting. The earlier OCD is treated, the easier it is to treat. On the other hand, the more one lets OCD fester, the more they will experience its symptoms. It is possible that intense stress causes certain physical conditions in the brain that then trigger the dynamics of OCD. Relieving stress may make it easier to treat the OCD. Therefore, psychotherapy may play a role in helping ease OCD by reducing overall stress and anxiety in the system (much like medication does) so that CBT can be effective.

Natural Treatment for Stress Relief

Bach Flower Remedies are one-ounce bottles of specially prepared water (see below for details). Although they are only water, they can affect the way people feel emotionally. In fact, they can help balance emotions so that a person can release stress, upset, hurt, anger, fear, sadness, irritation, jealousy, impatience  and any other distressed emotion. Indeed,  many people report that they have successfully used Bach Flower Remedies to feel calmer, sleep better, worry less, recover faster from upset and heartache, handle parenting stress and work stress better and so on. Many have also reported that they were able to see a reduction in their child’s tantrums, aggressive behaviors, moodiness  or fears because of the use of the remedies.

But the remedies can do even more than help a transitory bad feeling : they can also help correct the tendency to fall into those feelings in the first place. When the remedies are used to treat a chronic emotional issue (like a tendency to be stubborn or a tendency to be explosive), they might actually be assisting in a processes now referred to as  “epigentic healing” – the healing of the gene that leads one to experience chronically negative emotional states. We now know that genes can be turned on and off and this is what appears to be happening when someone takes a long course of Bach Flower Therapy. This means that a child who tends to be very shy can take the remedies over time to reduce the shy tendency altogether. The Bach Flowers do not change personality, however. What they do is enable a person to be their own best self. A very strong-willed, obstinate child will retain his strength of character but instead of just being difficult to live with he will be his best self: a born leader, a confident person, one who can take appropriate action. When the Flower Remedies help a childhood overcome chronic separation anxiety, they leave the child’s personality intact: it is the same youngster without debilitating fear blocking the expression of his true self.

It’s hard to believe that these little remedies can work and it’s best not to even TRY to believe that they will; rather, just try the remedies yourself and observe how you feel while taking them. Or, offer a remedy to your child and observe the child’s behavior over the next days and weeks to see if there is any difference. Bach Flowers sometimes seem to have a dramatically positive effect on both behavior and mood and other times seem to make little difference. (Of course, there is no medical or psychological treatment either that works equally well for every single person who employs it.) In the latter case, it might be that the wrong mix of remedies is being used, but it can also be that a longer period is necessary before change will occur or even that a particular person is not responsive to the remedies at the particular time that they are being offered (i.e. this could change in the future). It can also be that while the Bach Flowers are having some positive effect, a complete treatment  requires other interventions as well including strategies like nutritional support, exercise, psychotherapy and/or medicine.

How are Bach Flowers Prepared and Used?
Dr. Edward Bach, a prominent physician in Britain who died in 1935, was interested in preventative medicine. In his search for something that could boost the immune system to ward off disease or to help the body recover more quickly and thoroughly from illness, he discovered a water-based method of healing that became known as “Bach Flower Therapy.” Modern physicists use principles of quantum physics to explain how water remedies can affect human emotions. Dr. Bach, however, understood the remedies on a purely intuitive level. He felt their effects and he could see what they were able to do to effectively relieve stress and emotional distress.

Bach Flower Remedies are prepared by taking the head of a certain flowering plant and placing it in a clear bowl of pure water. The water is heated in sunlight or on a stove for several hours (depending on which flower is being used) and then the flower is removed. The water is the remedy. It is bottled (and preserved with a bit of grape alcholol) and – in our times – sold in health food stores throughout the world as well as on-line.

Bach Fower Remedies are a form of vibrational medicine, not herbal medicine. They are NOT medicinal. They do not act on the body at all. They don’t interact with other medicines or foods or health conditions or anything. They are the same as water is to the system. However, if someone cannot have even a minute amount of alcohol in their system, they should look for the newer remedies that are made using glycerin instead. In general, however, anyone can safely use Bach Flower Remedies – babies, children, teens and adults, pregnant women and elderly people. Even plants and animals respond well to the Bach Flowers!

How Does One Take Bach Flowers?
If a person is using only one of the 38 remedies, they can take 2 drops from the remedy bottle in a small amount of liquid. They should do so 4 times a day – morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

However, most people take anywhere from 2 to 7 remedies that have been mixed together in a “mixing bottle.” To prepare a mixing bottle, one places water in a glass bottle with a glass dropper – generally a  30 ml  (1oz.) amber bottle. (These bottles are sold wherever Bach Flower Remedies are sold and they are called Bach Mixing Bottles.) Then one adds 2 drops from each desired remedy bottle. If a person was using 7 remedies, they would be adding 14 Bach Remedy drops to their mixing bottle. To ensure that bacteria does not grow inside of the mixing bottle, a teaspoon of brandy or apple cider vinegar should be added to the bottle.

This Bach Flower Remedy Mixture is then taken, 4 drops at a time, in hot or cold liquid, with or without food. Ideally, these 4 drops are taken 4 times a day, for a total of 16 drops daily. A person takes them in the morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

Adults can put 4 drops of their Bach Flower mixture into coffee, tea, water, juice, soup or any other liquid. Children can take their drops in water, chocolate milk, juice, cereal or any other beverage.

A person takes their mixture until they start forgetting to take it and they no longer need it. (Or, parents give a mixture to a child until the child’s behavior or mood issues have resolved to the point where the parent is now forgetting to give it to the child)  If symptoms return (and they most likely will), the person starts taking the remedy again. In fact a person may end up using the remedy off and on for a year or two (less time in children) before the problematic tendency  disappears completely.

How Does One Know Which Remedies to Use?
Dr. Bach wanted to keep his healing method very simply. A person should be able to read the description of the 38 remedies and decide which ones he needs. Of course, some people feel that they need all 38! However, no more than 7 should be used at a time.

A person could pick up a book on Bach Flower Remedies and decide which flowers they need based on the description of who the remedy is for and what it can do. Also, most health food stores have a pamphlet that explain what the remedies can too. Alternatively, a person can make an appointment with a Bach Flower Practitioner who will be pleased to help them design a remedy for themselves or their child.

Helping Kids Deal with Feelings

Parents sometimes get so caught up in the physical demands of childrearing (getting kids ready for school, providing meals, making sure homework is done, taking them to lessons, getting them into bath and bed), that they can easily forget that there is a whole other side of parenting that is equally important and that must be attended to: the child’s inner world – the world of feelings. Helping children identify and manage their emotions is a critical task for any parent. So much of a child’s behavior is driven by emotions; frustrated children may become aggressive, frightened children may refuse to cooperate at bedtime, socially anxious children may isolate themselves, and so forth. Indeed, young children are prone to react emotionally to every situation rather than think about what they ought to do. Kids of every age are prone to experience periods of overwhelm or insecurity, moodiness or anxiety. Parents can play a major role in helping kids to negotiate the world of upsetting emotions.

How can parents help children deal with their feelings? Consider the following:

Be Open about Your Own Emotions
Kids feel free to explore and express their emotions only to the extent that they feel their family is open to it. So teach by example. If you feel sad, then express to the family that you are sad: “The ending to that movie was so sad that it made me cry!” If you are angry, assertively (that is, politely but firmly) express that you are angry: “I am really upset that you didn’t listen to me!” When you are feeling anxious, say so: “I’m worried about Grandpa. He fell twice last week.”  When children see that their parents are comfortable having and speaking about emotions, they will learn that feelings are just a normal part of the human experience. Parents who tell children to “stop crying” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of” accidentally encourage kids to bottle up their emotions.

Welcome Your Child’s Feelings
Differentiate between behaviors and feelings. You won’t be able to accept all of your child’s behaviors, but you can certainly accept all of his feelings. Let’s say that your youngster is mad at his brother for breaking the tower he was building. The anger is understandable and acceptable. However, punching the brother is completely unacceptable. Anger is a feeling – always acceptable. Punching is a behavior – and behaviors may or may not be acceptable. Is your child whining because he doesn’t like the meal you prepared? Whining is a behavior and one that happens to be unacceptable. Not liking dinner (feeling disappointed or frustrated) is a feeling and is acceptable. Your response can welcome the feeling while correcting the behavior. For instance, “I’m sorry you don’t like tonight’s dinner. I know that you’re disappointed and frustrated – you wanted something else. It is not O.K. to whine like that. Just tell me how you feel in words and I’ll try to help you out.” No matter what your child is feeling, accept the feeling without criticism or correction. This is easy to say but really hard to do. Sometimes your child feels things that you might find frightening. For instance, your child might say things like, “No one likes me” or “I’m so ugly” or “I don’t want to finish my degree. It’s just too hard” Your job in all of these cases is to accept the feelings BEFORE you try to educate the child. “No one likes you? That’s a sad feeling!” “You feel ugly? That’s really hard! “You don’t want to finish your degree? You sound very discouraged.” As the child responds, continue naming feelings as long as possible. Don’t jump in to correct the youngster because that will stop him from trying to share feelings with you in the future. When your kids have angry feelings, teach them the right way to express those feelings. How feelings are expressed is a behavior. Yelling, for example is a behavior, as is talking in a normal tone of voice. Teach kids that yelling, name calling, swearing, throwing, kicking and so on are all unacceptable ways to express the feeling of anger. On the other hand, saying “I’m angry” or “I’m really upset” or “I am so frustrated” are all valid ways to verbally express anger. Teach them to name their feeling and ask for what they want. It is normal for both parents and children to feel frustrated. You can certainly name, accept and validate your child’s upset and frustration. You cannot, however, accept his abusive behavior.

Use Pictures to Help Your Child Identify Feelings
When young children have difficulty articulating what they are going through, it’s best to turn to non-verbal aids. One such aid is a set of pictures depicting the different kinds of emotions. Instead of asking children to tell you how they feel, encourage kids to point at the card that illustrates the emotion they are going through. Parents can also use the cards as a prompt when trying to figure out what their child is feeling. Some parents put a “feeling wheel” on the refrigerator where a child can easily see it and use it to describe what he is experiencing.

Make it a Habit to Ask Children How They Feel
Very few parents take the effort to deliberately help their kids to identify what they are feeling at a given point in time. But there are many occasions when a focus on feelings can help increase a child’s emotional intelligence. Occasions when kids are happy, such as when a playmate comes over, can be an opportunity to teach kids about positive emotions. It looked like you guys were having a blast? Was it fun having Steve over?” Occasions that are sad, such as the death of a pet, can be opportunities to instruct about negative emotions. “I can’t believe that Fluffy died! I feel so sad. How about you? How are you doing?” By inviting open discussion of feelings you make it easy for your children to access their own and others emotions and become emotionally intelligent.

Fear of Flying

Picture this: you and your family are planning a beautiful vacation. Everything is ready to go except that there is one tiny problem: Yourchild is afraid of flying – so terrified, in fact, that she doesn’t want to come on this trip. Do you change your travel destination, cancel the trip or  force her onto the plane? Or is there a way to help her get over her fear?

The good news is that fear of flying ( aerophobia) – a common phenomenon among both children and adults – responds well to various interventions. The following are some tips on how parents can help a child who is afraid to fly:

Acknowledge, Accept and Treat the Fear
Fear of flying is understandable – after all, the airplane is hanging in the sky! It seems like it could easily fall down. And, to top it off, planes do crash and people do die fiery deaths – so fear of flying has to be respected. Let your child know that while you understand and respect her fear, it IS possible to feel differently and, in fact, you yourself are not afraid. Most likely, you have flown more often than your child. Let your child know that because you have experienced the comfort and safety of flying, you actually enjoy being on a plane. You count on arriving to your destination safely, just like you do when you’re driving. Inform your child that flying in a plane is statistically safer than being in a moving car. After giving this information, still accept the child’s fear by saying something like, “but sometimes we can’t help the scary feelings inside even when we know the facts.” Tell the child that there are different things that can make the scary feelings calm down and you are going to help those scary feelings.

Calming Scary Feelings
If your child’s fear is intense, take her to a mental health professional who treats phobias. Often CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) will be helpful. Other treatments that are used quite successfully for phobias in general and fear of flying in particular are EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). If you can’t find a therapist who practices EFT, or if the fear is not overwhelming, you can easily learn EFT yourself and teach it to your child. There are books on EFT and lots of web resources. In addition, you might experiment with a product called Rescue Remedy – a fear-busting Bach Flower Remedy that is available on-line and in health food stores around the world. Rescue Remedy, safe for babies, children and teens, can help calm anxious and panicky feelings. Also ask your child to imagine the whole  flight starting with take-off, flying and landing safely. The child should imagine this as often as possible, with and without simultaneous tapping.  Keep in mind that teenagers and adults with intense fear of flying may  also be able to take anti-anxiety medication to help with the actual flight – talk to your child’s doctor about this particularly if self-help and professional help have failed to reduce the fear to a manageable level.

Be Prepared
In anticipation of your child’s anxiety during the flight, it might be best to come prepared with plenty of distractions. Music is traditionally believed to be soothing for a child; taking your mp3 player along can help. Similarly, drawing or coloring can be soothing and distracting, so make sure you pack some books, crayons and pencils. For older kids consider “Zentangle” – meditative doodling (you can find more information online). Cards, board games and movies you both can watch through a portable DVD player or laptop would also be great help. Check with the airline before take off to see whether children’s programming is provided on the plane’s movie and T.V. screen, to save having to bring everything along yourself.

Bring Security Objects
Having something familiar around during a flight can help ease a child’s emotions about flying. Bring a favorite toy, pillow or blanket along for the ride. Older kids can bring photos.

Bibliotherapy
Get a picture book out of the library that explains what pilots and stewardesses do. For older kids, take out books on flying, flying phobias, airplanes and so on, and also access online resources on all aspects of flight and fear. You want to be able to show your child that many people work on planes all day long, flying all the time. This can help bring home the safe nature of this form of travel. For airline professionals, being in the air does not occur once a year on summer vacations, but every day as part of a regular job.

Manage Your Own Fear
Lastly, make sure that you present your child with a calm and reassuring face! Kids take their cue from their parents and other adults. If you are also fearful in the sky, your child may not be able to draw on your reserve of calm energy. Use the interventions above (see “calming scary feelings”) to help yourself overcome your own fears of flying!

Fear of Thunder, Lightning, and Other Weather Conditions

Storms can be frightening for children and adults alike. A flash of electricity lighting up the night time sky, a rumble of thunder followed by a crashing boom can send shivers up anyone’s back! Some children are more afraid of severe weather conditions than others, but parents need to know how to help any child feel more comfortable in the face of howling winds, noisy storms, torrential downpours and all the other frightening weather events that inevitably occur in our world.

To help your child be more comfortable during severe weather events, consider the following tips:

Make it Fun
Many adults associate storms with fond childhood memories. You can help your child do the same by starting “traditions” of story-telling or game-playing during storms. Since everyone is stuck inside anyway, it’s a great opportunity for family time.  Sipping cocoa, munching munchies, listening to music, cuddling up with a good book or movie – cozy activities can create cozy feelings toward rough weather condition.

If it’s already bedtime and your child is under the covers, you can still help her associate storms with comfort and positive feelings. A young child might appreciate the companionship of a special plush toy (or the real family pet). An older one might enjoy a flashlight and a good book to read under the covers – a special activity reserved for stormy nights. Or, you might help the child imagine that there is a noisy celebration of fireworks outside. Or, you can take turns making up explanations for the noise with your child as a fun and silly game – for instance, you suggest that the sky giants are bowling and your child suggests that the angels are go-carting and you suggest that the clouds are arguing and so on and so forth. Or, you can invite everyone into your bed so they can all fall asleep together. Most storms don’t last very long, so hopefully everyone will soon return to their own beds!

If your child is too frightened and upset to enjoy the fun, consider learning and then treating him or her with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). This very simple self-help tapping technique can be used WHILE the child is overwhelmed with panic to help turn off the fight-or-flight response. Learn about EFT online or from one of the many books on the subject, or consult a mental health practitioner who uses and teaches the technique.  EFT can often reduce intense feelings of fear in just a few minutes.

Consider Rescue Remedy and Bach Flower Remedies
Another resource is Rescue Remedy – a harmless, water-based form of vibrational “medicine” that quickly calms agitation and fear. Give your child 4 drops in a small amount of water, encouraging him to sip it every few minutes until he feels better. Rescue Remedy also comes in spray form and can be sprayed directly into the child’s mouth.

The Bach Flower Remedies Mimulus and Rock Rose can be prepared together in one mixing bottle (see instructions on this site and elsewhere online and in books, or consult a Bach Flower Practitioner for assistance). Giving this mixture to the child several times a day for an extended period (i.e. many months) can help prevent the fear of storms from occurring in the future.

Explain the Science
Understanding the science of storms can help reduce the child’s fear. Get the information you need about the cause of severe weather conditions and give it over in an age-appropriate way to your child. Be sure to include information about how to stay safe in a storm.

Teach Self-Soothing Skills
Teach your child simple but effective ways of calming feelings of fear. Self-talk is a good tool for this purpose: teach your child to tell him or herself, “the storm will be over very soon and everything will be back to normal” or “it’s noisy outside but I’m safe here inside.”  You can also teach the child how to calm the fight-or-flight chemistry by breathing very slowly. Your child’s fear is fueled by his or her negative imagination (picturing worst case scenarios). Teach the child to use positive imagination instead (i.e. picturing how nice and fresh everything will look after the storm).

Professional Help
If self-help techniques do not sufficiently help your child through storms, do take him or her to a mental health professional. Fears and phobias produce a lot of unnecessary anguish and suffering – they are usually quickly and easily resolved with a short course of professional treatment.

Fear of Vomiting

Does your child experience extreme anxiety at the mere thought of throwing up?  Does he or she experience adverse reactions, such as intense nausea or panic, when seeing or smelling vomit? Most people don’t enjoy being around vomit, but some adults and children actually experience panic at the thought of vomiting or coming in contact with vomit. If your child reacts in this way, it is possible that he or she is suffering from emetophobia: an extreme and pervasive fear related to vomiting.

Normal vs. Clinical Fear of Vomiting
Emetophobia is an extreme anxiety reaction to vomiting, way beyond the normal queasiness and disgust that people generally feel. The reaction can be so intense that kids can have unmanageable fears regarding illness or nausea because both of these are associated with the possibility of vomiting. In other words, if the child hears that a classmate has the flu, she might begin to obsess and panic about the chances that she herself will fall ill (having been exposed to the sick child in class). The child will worry that if she gets the flu, then she might have to vomit. The thought of the possible illness may keep her awake for nights on end until it seems that she has escaped the illness after all.

Parental reassurance and support does little to comfort the child. In fact, reassurance can actually prolong the panic reaction (see below).  Children with emetophobia may begin to panic even when hearing that someone in the neighborhood has been vomiting. They may fear eating at restaurants or friends’ houses because of the fear of getting food poisoning that may lead to vomiting. Or they may fear visiting people in hospitals because “that’s where sick people are.” They may fear going on school trips because someone may experience travel sickness and end up vomiting. In short, the fear of vomiting can affect a child’s entire life as the child tries valiantly to avoid all instances of vomiting in herself or others.

What Causes Emetophobia?
Like many clinical fears and phobias, fear of vomiting occurs without a known reason. Although some people develop this fear after having an unpleasant gagging experience, most people cannot trace the fear to a bad experience. In fact, if panic of vomiting is triggered through a very bad experience it is most likely a trauma reaction rather than emetophobia (a true phobia). Don’t bother asking your child what she is afraid of because she won’t be able to explain her strong reactions beyond saying she doesn’t like vomit. What she knows is that her heart beats rapidly, she feels nauseous, dizzy and/or overwhelmed and she can’t turn the feelings off.

How can Parents Help?
What can parents do to help a child with a fear of vomiting?

Firstly, it’s important that parents respond with compassion and empathy when children experience anxiety attacks. Clinical phobias are already difficult and debilitating on their own – getting reprimanded and punished for them will just add to the stress. Seeing a parent upset over something that can’t be helped will just shame a child for being ill.

Gradual de-sensitization to vomiting behavior or vomit can do a lot in helping a child with emetophobia. There are different therapeutic interventions that result in desensitization such as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). Home treatment of emetophobia is not recommended. Instead, take your child to an anxiety disorders clinic (where they treat phobias) or a child psychologist who treats fears and phobias. Treatment is normally brief with long-lasting effects.

Fear of Doctors or Dentists

Some babies, kids and teens have fears of medical professionals. This is highly inconvenient because all people need to see doctors and dentists at least occasionally. Moreover, some people require acute medical or dental attention – being terrified of the helping professional only adds stress to the already intense stress of injury or illness.

If your child has a fear of doctors or dentists, consider the following tips:

Babies are Smarter Than They Look
A baby often figures out rather quickly that the doctor gives – ouch – needles. If your baby develops “attitude” about doctor’s visits, it means that he or she is smart. Even though the doctor smiles and seems so friendly, he or she pokes and prods and pricks during those first-year visits. You can validate your baby’s feelings by saying things like, “I know you don’t like the doctor. It isn’t fun to get that needle!” Even if your baby doesn’t understand your speech, your validation of his or her experience is good practice for the validation that you’ll need to be doing for many years to come. Moreover, the baby can feel your sympathy and understanding even if he doesn’t understand your words. This helps establish a strong parent-child bond that builds trust while also helps to soothe and calm your baby. Once the doctor’s visits become more pleasant, the baby will usually develop a warm relationship with the doctor. In other words, in most cases, the problem will go away by itself within some months or, in more difficult cases, in a couple of years. Just wait it out. Alternatively, it may help a little if you can pair a doctor’s visit with a treat or privilege of some kind. Don’t bribe the child; simply give the child a treat or privilege when you leave the doctor’s office. This can help the child associate the doctor with pleasure and this can reduce his upset, despite the pain.

Persistent Fear Requires Intervention
If your baby doesn’t grow out of the fear of a white coat or the smell of the doctor’s office by toddlerhood, you’ll definitely want to help him along. Young kids can benefit from “bibliotherapy” – the use of picture books to help reduce anxiety. Your local library may have a selection of picture books for young children that focus on what exactly happens at a medical or dental office. Reading such books can help prepare and calm the youngster before a visit for a check-up or treatment. Older children – those beyond the picture-book stage of life – may benefit from specific stress-reduction strategies. If you know some, teach them to your child or teen. If you don’t, one or two visits to a mental health professional may be all that your child needs in order to learn some coping tools for fear. If the child has a true phobia, full treatment can take a number of weeks or even some months. One thing that you might teach a child is how to focus on his breath while the doctor or dentist performs an examination. Tell your child to pay attention to the breath going in and out of his nostrils, or pay attention to his chest rising and falling as he breathes. Alternatively, teach the child to “daydream” effectively – to use visualization to take himself to a safe, fun place while the doctor is performing his examination. A different kind of tool is “mindfulness meditation.” In this technique you teach your child to name his thoughts and feelings and physical sensations as they are occurring during the examination or treatment. For instance, the child might say (silently), “scared, nervous, don’t like this, don’t want to be here, cold, uncomfortable, want to go home, relaxed, sore, sad, upset, mad, happy to be going home now,” and so on, throughout the medical or dental visit. Even though the child is naming negative thoughts and feelings, he will actually feel more in-control and calmer by doing this exercise. Try it yourself first to see how it feels. Another tool that helps many children and teens is EFT – emotional freedom technique. You can learn about this self-help tool online. It is excellent for removing or minimizing feelings of fear.

Try Bach Flower Therapy
On the day of the medical visit, and right beforehand, try giving your child Rescue Remedy. This pre-mixed Bach Flower Remedy is available at health food stores and on-line. Rescue Remedy helps to calm feelings of overwhelming fear and panic and can be taken right before, during and right after a very frightening experience. It comes in liquid (drop 4 drops in water or any other beverage) as well as spray and candy form. In order to help ease the fearful tendency out of the child and thereby prevent on-going fear of medical professionals, use Bach Flowers regularly for some months. Try the remedies Mimulus (for fears) and Rock Rose (for panic). You can speak to a Bach Flower Therapist to get a specially designed formulation for your child or you can look up the remedy descriptions online and select up to 7 remedies to put all together in one dropper bottle. There are online resources to learn how to prepare the remedies for use.

Seek Professional Help
If you’ve tried everything and your child is still afraid of medical or dental professionals, enlist the help of a professional therapist. Do this as soon as possible to make healing easier and to save your child many years of unnecessary pain and distress.

Habits

What’s the difference between a bad habit, a nervous habit and a compulsive habit? When should a parent be concerned about a child’s habit?

Bad Habits
Everyone has bad habits. Leaving one’s dish on the table is a bad habit – one that many kids (and adults!) have. Calling a sibling “stupid” or some other insulting name can be a bad habit. Slamming the car door too hard can also be a bad habit. A bad habit is any repetitive behavior that needs improvement. That behavior can be a small, annoying behavior or it can be a more serious problematic behavior. For instance, a teen might have a bad habit of calling home past midnight to say that he’ll be out later than expected, or, he might have a really bad habit of forgetting to call home at all and just showing up at 3 in the morning.

Parents can help their children overcome bad habits by using normal parenting techniques like teaching, rewarding and disciplining. If the child’s bad habit is interfering with his health or functioning, however, then professional intervention is a good idea. For instance, a child who is chronically sleep-deprived due to going to bed too late or who is doing poorly in school due to chronically getting up too late, may benefit from counseling or other appropriate therapy.

Nervous Habits
Nervous habits are bodily behaviors that aim to discharge stress or tension. Twirling one’s hair, biting one’s nails, rocking back and forth, shaking one’s feet while seated – all these actions are examples of nervous habits. Talking rapidly, running to the bathroom urgently, gulping down food, giggling inappropriately – these, too, can be nervous habits.

If a child has a nervous habit he or she may benefit from learning better techniques for stress reduction. There are children’s classes and groups for yoga and mindfulness meditation that can be helpful. Alternative therapies can also help. For instance, herbal medicine can come the system down and Bach Flower Therapy can relieve stress and tension. Parental nagging to stop the nervous habit, on the other hand, does not help at all – if anything, it might increase the nervous habit. If the habit is bothering the child or parent, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful.

Compulsive Habits
While bad habits and nervous habits occur to some extent in almost everyone, compulsive habits occur only in those who have various mental health disorders. Eating disorders often involve compulsive activities like weighing oneself or cutting food into tiny bits. Certain kinds of psychotic disorders also have compulsive symptoms.

Compulsive habits are most characteristic of the anxiety disorder called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This sort of habit is more ritualistic than the habits we’ve discussed so far. For instance, someone with a “nervous” habit might tap her feet while waiting in a long line. However, someone with a compulsive habit might tap her feet exactly 13 times – not because she is tense, but because she is attempting to reduce truly anxious, troubling feelings. Tapping exactly 13 times – not one less or one more -is a compulsion. A compulsion is a specific action whose purpose is to calm the anxiety associated with troubling obsessions (thoughts or sensations). There are many, many types of compulsive habits. Washing one’s hands a certain number of times is a common compulsive habit that often results in red, chapped, even bleeding skin. Counting steps, saying certain words or numbers, checking things repeatedly, praying in a specified way not characteristic for others who practice the same religion – all of these can be compulsive habits. The child who engages in these or other compulsive habits is a slave to the habit – he or she MUST perform the action or else suffers overwhelming anxiety.

Compulsive habits do not tend to go away by themselves. Instead, they get worse and worse over time and spread into more and more styles of compulsive habits. The sooner a child receives professional treatment for compulsive habits, the sooner the child will be able to lead a normal, healthy, compulsion-free life. If you think that your child’s habits may be compulsive in nature, arrange for an assessment with a mental health professional (psychologist or psychiatrist). Treatment can help!