Identifying Bad Habits in Preschoolers

Learn how to identify and eliminate bad habits in your preschooler.
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Identifying Bad Habits in Preschoolers

This article focuses on bad habits rather than bad behavior, because behavior that troubles you becomes a problem only when it becomes habitual. All preschoolers behave in ways that parents wish they wouldn't, at least on occasion. Your child will be no different. But no matter how strongly you disapprove of certain aspects of your child's behavior, it should be cause for real concern only if it becomes persistent.

Before you resolve to go to any lengths to try to break one of your child's bad habits, take a good long look at the behavior—and at yourself:

  • Why do you find the behavior so objectionable?
  • Is this behavior really so different from the behavior of other kids your child's age?
  • Is the behavior really something over which your child has control at this age?
  • Will it harm your preschooler to let him continue behaving this way?
  • What positive benefits, if any, does your child derive from the habit?
  • What can you offer to replace the benefits your preschooler will give up by breaking this habit?

Bad habits are in the eye of the beholder. You may be tempted to define certain aspects of your child's behavior as "bad habits." But in reality, they may be little more than typical patterns of preschool behavior that you find bothersome, irritating, or even disgusting. Face it. Though preschoolers can be a great delight and source of joy, they also can be a real pain. Most three- and four-year-olds are by nature messy, careless, and noisy, for example. They demand instant gratification, forget what you told them just three minutes ago, and require an enormous amount of your time. What's more, they never, ever go away. But do any of these typical preschool behaviors deserve to be labeled as bad habits? It all depends on who's doing the labeling.

If, after examining your child's behavior and your own attitudes, you still regard something as a bad habit, then it deserves to be taken seriously.

Try to avoid automatically dismissing a bad habit as a "phase" your child is going through. Some habits may result from medical conditions ( bedwetting, for example, which may be caused by a bladder abnormality). If so, the sooner you find out and treat them, the better. Other troublesome behavior patterns may refuse to go away if you ignore them. And while you're waiting for the phase to end, your child may suffer consequences that will persist much longer than the behavior itself. Your child may be shunned by other children—and by teachers, day-care providers, and other adults as well. And you may be shunned by other parents who hold you responsible for your child's bad habits.

Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

Despite what you might hear others say, don't take on all the blame for your child's bad habits. Bad habits are not necessarily a parent's fault-all or in part. Nor can you expect to cure some bad habits all by yourself. Persistent problem behaviors that seem different from those demonstrated by other preschoolers your child's age might best be discussed with your pediatrician. You might find out that the problem demands professional attention, but you could find out—much to your surprise—that your child is quite "normal."

Try to avoid blaming your child for bad habits. Bad habits are, after all, just habits. Most have their origin outside the realm of conscious intent. Bad habits among preschoolers may result from delayed development, from parenting mistakes, from emotional trauma or conflict, or from some physiological cause. But they are rarely if ever caused by a child's vindictiveness or conscious attempt to manipulate. Preschoolers simply aren't that calculating.

Attempts to blame yourself, your child, or anyone else will not help solve the problem. And imposing punishment for a troublesome habit doesn't really attack the root of the behavior. Instead, try to use positive reinforcement to change your preschooler's behavioral patterns. Rather than scolding or punishing your child's failures, focus on praising and rewarding her successes.