Dry Thumb in One Week

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Falling in Love with your  Family by Alison

One Christmas, we went to see an outdoor Christmas event with a live camel present.  The kids were petting the camel and my son, in my husband’s arms, reached out to pet the beast.  His little hand was immediately engulfed in the camel’s massive mouth and then reappeared with a juicy slurp.  My son, astonished at what had just happened, immediately stuck his thumb in his mouth for comfort and began sucking.

Beyond the obvious gag reflex associated with watching my baby ingest camel saliva, thumb-sucking wasn’t a huge problem in my book.  All my kids went though a stage as babies, and all quickly grew out of it without interference.  But not #5.  After his 4th birthday, I decided it was time to put his thumb sucking on to an end.  We had tried the nasty stuff on his thumb, but now I was even more diligent.  His siblings had their own strategies, but those usually involved saying how gross his thumb was and telling him not to be a baby.  If anything, he just sucked his thumb more frequently.  I decided to pull out the big guns and make a treatment plan.  Even if you don’t have a thumb sucker, this model can work with all sorts of problem behaviors.

1) Identify Desired Behavior

What do you want to see?  It isn’t enough to punish the wrong behavior (like the nasty thumb paint).  We need to focus on what behavior we are looking for.  What behavior are you looking for?  In this case, it was a  dry thumb.

2) Identify Reinforcers

We decided to use three reinforcers for this thumb-sucking project: a Hot Wheels car for a final reward, verbal praise, and a chart.  Every kid is different, but every kids has something that will provide enough motivation to try to succeed.

3) Make a Plan

We made a chart together and I explained that he would get to mark off a circle when I saw that he had a dry thumb.  He is older and has done charts before, so I planned on the chart lasting about a week and earning the first reward then.  For younger children, a daily reward would be more appropriate.  We used intermittent reinforcement for the thumb-sucking, meaning that we didn’t praise him every single time he wasn’t sucking his thumb, but instead praised him a few times a day for having a dry thumb.  He got to mark a circle on the chart along with the praise, so he could have a visual sign of his progress towards his new car.  I planned on repeating this two or more times until he kicked the habit.

4) Get Everyone on Board

Explain what you are doing to other family members and try to enlist their support.  It was so helpful for us to have older siblings say, “Way to go!  Your thumb is dry!”

5) Ignore the Inappropriate Behavior

For this behavior, since it wasn’t harming anyone, we could safely ignore the negative behavior–sucking his thumb.  It is always hard to do this, but the goal is to reserve parental attention for the behavior you want to see–the dry thumb.

6) Praise the Desired Behavior

Eventually, the thumb has to come out of the mouth right?  And when it does, there’s a party!  I would wait until his thumb was dry, and ask him, “Is your thumb dry?”  He would proudly hold it up for me to see.  I would give him a hug or high-five, and then let him mark off a circle on his chart.  I’d tell him what a big boy he was becoming and how glad I was that he had a dry thumb.  After a few days of this, he would come to me and show me that his thumb was dry.  I began to see him start to suck his thumb, then stop, dry it off, and come show me that it was dry.  When he finally finished his chart, we all celebrated.  We opened the new car with much fanfare and were so excited for what a big boy he now was.

The results?  I fully expected this four-year habit to take at least three or four rounds of charts and rewards to stop.  But he is done sucking his thumb after one week!  I haven’t seen him suck his thumb for five days now, even at night.  I’m surprised it was so quick, because many behaviors are not so easily managed.  There is pretty amazing power in consistent effort, lack of negative comments and punishment, and a heavy dose of encouragement and praise.  (I’m sure the Hot Wheels car helped, too.)

Next time you have a child exhibiting behaviors that need to be managed, try to remember this six-step formula and get your own plan going!

1) Identify Desired Behavior

2) Identify Reinforcers

3) Make a Plan

4) Get Everyone on Board

5) Ignore the Inappropriate Behavior

6) Praise the Desired Behavior

Try it!  Let us know how it goes!

 

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