Helping a 10-Year Old Give Up Thumb-Sucking

I was helping the child of a friend, who was 10 and still sucking her thumb. She had been trying to stop sucking her thumb for a long time. Her parents had tried many things to help– reminders to her at home, the bad-tasting thumb paint, and even putting gloves on her hands at night. She had agreed to these things because she really wanted to stop. At 10, you can imagine that she and her family had been dealing with this a long time. In spite of all this, she still sucked her thumb frequently.

I spent some “Special Time” with her, playing until we felt like we knew each other. Eventually, she told me that she wanted to stop sucking her thumb. I said that I would stay with her while she tried to think about taking her thumb out of her mouth, but that I wasn't going to make her take it out. I figured that plenty of adults had already tried that, and it hadn't worked. She needed my encouragement, not my interference.

I stayed close to her, touched her hand gently, and touched her thumb. I said, “It's really brave of you to try to do this. I'll stay with you, and I know that you can figure this out.”

I touched her thumb very gently while she was sucking it. I said, “I'm very glad to be with you.” That's when she started crying. As she cried, she told me, “I just hate doing this!” She also cried about how hard it had been to have this habit, saying, “I hate it when the kids at school tease me!” She cried hard with me for about 15 minutes, as I sat close, touched her thumb with one hand, and put my other hand on her shoulder. The things she cried about began to change, and she told me, “And I still don't even know how to ride a bike!” The hopelessness of giving up her thumb somehow connected to other things that felt hopeless, I guess. So I said, “You can learn,” in my most encouraging voice. She said, “No, I can't,” and cried more. I gently said, “Yes you can, I know you can.” I think part of what helped her was that I could be hopeful for her.

When she finished crying, we found a bike, and I asked her if she wanted to try learning. She did. So we spent the next bit of time working on bike riding. She wobbled a lot, stopping and starting again, and after about 15 minutes, and many false starts and wobbles, she rode the bike! I actually don't know how long she dealt with the thumb sucking after that afternoon–she lives far from me, and we didn't see each other again. But I do know that she was elated about the bike, and felt deeply hopeful. Years later, she wrote me a card and thanked me for that day.

– Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Founder and Director

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2 thoughts on “Helping a 10-Year Old Give Up Thumb-Sucking”

  1. Would you have any suggestions for a 6-year-old who doesn’t *want* to give up sucking her thumb? Frankly I wouldn’t care and would be happy to wait until she’s ready, but she also has speech issues that she desperately wants to fix, and she knows that the thumb-sucking and speech issues are related. I want to help her get to where she wants to be in the speech department, but it’s frustrating for all of us when the thumb-sucking is clearly in the way.

    1. superprotectivefactor

      Dear Shimona:

      Here’s what I would suggest.

      First, we have an article, No More Thumb! No More Pacifier! on our website that you may not have seen. The examples in the article may sound like they’re for two year olds, but six year olds respond well, too, to nuzzling, to playful bids to bring them out of their withdrawn place. Laughter or tears and a tantrum are what you’re looking for. These are the emotional “gold” that, when you support a child to keep laughing, or to cry things all the way through, with your kind attention and dedication to staying close until the storm has passed, lead to a child’s improved ability to function. The more you can play so laughter ensues (without tickling, though nuzzling is good), or until she finds a way to cry or have a stormy tantrum, the faster she’ll emerge from both the speech difficulties, and from her habit of thumb sucking. She has some things to “say,” but words will come AFTER the tears, the big feelings that have almost no words to them, the raging and fighting that lies underneath the surface of any child who is withdrawing and who feels unable to express herself well.

      You can call us for a consultation if you would like more specific help. Many of our other articles may also be helpful to you.


      Patricia Wipfler, Director, Hand in Hand
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