Picking—especially nose-picking—is pretty normal toddler and preschool behavior. It might be born out of boredom, curiosity about their little bodies, or maybe they just have a stuffy sneezer or itchy skin! But whether due to the ick-factor or worries that all this nose picking might be harmful (for example, if a child picks to the point of bleeding), picking is a habit that parents are often eager to curb. Fortunately, there are several tools to quash this bad habit.

1. Stop toddler nose picking by connecting with respect.

When you point out the behavior you’re trying to curb (your child’s nose picking), it’s very important to connect with respect. Choose your words carefully; shaming your child strips them of their dignity, which can work against you.

  • When discussing nose-picking with your child, kneel down, getting a little below your child’s eye level. This helps make your child feel respected.
  • Always criticize the behavior, not the child. Say, “Picking your nose is yucky,” rather than, “Bad girl.”
  • Teach your child the consequences of the behavior: “Picking your skin can give you boo-boos, see how red your hand is right here? Mommy doesn’t want to see you hurt yourself.” Or: “Picking your nose can spread germs and make people sick, and we want to keep ourselves and our friends healthy.”
  • Keep your words positive by focusing on what you want your child to do instead of the behavior you want them to stop. “Your nose looks itchy, can I get you a tissue?” Or: “You look like you need something to do with your hands, why don’t you play with this toy?”
  • Gossip about the behavior you don’t like. Gossip means saying things out loud near your child so that they overhear you…which makes your words of criticism much more effective than if you’d delivered them directly.

2. Encourage the behavior you want to see to stop toddler nose picking.

One of the most effective ways to change a toddler’s behavior is to flash a green light of encouragement on the behavior you want to see. In this case: no picking. Here are a few ways to encourage your toddler or preschooler to stop picking:

  • Give praise. Praise your child when you see them stop themself from picking, or when you notice they’ve gone for a long stretch of time without picking.
  • Gossip about good behavior. Just as gossip can be used to address negative behavior, it also makes praise about 50 times more effective! To use gossip to curb nose-picking, you might loudly whisper to your little one’s teddy bear, “I love the way Joey started to pick his nose and then stopped, all by himself!” Later on, repeat the same praise to someone else. He’ll begin to think, wow, I must be really doing a good job because I’m hearing this a lot lately.
  • Use a star chart. For toddlers ages 2 and up, a star chart can be a great way to reward the behavior you want to see. I typically recommend choosing three behaviors to track with your star chart—two your child is already doing (like washing hands or brushing teeth) and one behavior you’d like to change (going all day without picking). During a calm moment, sit your tot down and discuss some of the things they’ve been doing well, and then mention that you want to help them do even better. Let them know that for each day they goes without picking, you’ll add a star to the chart. Once they get 10 stars on the chart, give them a special reward (like a treat, stickers, or something else they enjoy).
  • Offer small rewards. If you think your child needs more instant gratification, instead of a star chart, you might offer a small incentive at the end of a day of no picking. Or, for kids 5 and up, another approach might be to start your tot off with a bag of 2-3 poker chips in the morning. Every time your tyke picks his nose or skin, he has to give one up, but if he makes it through the day with his poker chips intact, he gets a small prize for each chip. 

3. Stop toddler nose-picking with a mild consequence.

If all else fails, you can rely on a mild consequence called clap-growl warnings, which I use to curb annoying behavior. When you see your child picking, clap your hands 3 to 4 times and let out a deep growl. This usually stops behavior dead in its tracks! When your child heeds your warning, reward them immediately with praise. As your child gets older, you’ll do less growling, but you may continue to use a clap or a silent cue, like a frown or pointed finger, to issue your warning.

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