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Is this normal? What to do about nose-picking... and when to worry

by Gail Saltz / / Source: TODAY Contributor

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Kids are weird. But how do you know when the weirdness is normal and when it’s not? In our new series, psychiatrist Gail Saltz answers common parenting questions about the strange things children do.

First up: Nose picking. Some kids seem like they’re digging for gold 24-7 — no matter how many times you tell them to get their finger out of their nose, you turn around and they’re at it again. Home… school… church… is this really normal? And how can you get them to stop?

Kid picking her nose
Is this normal?Alexey Losevich / Shutterstock

Not only is nose picking normal, almost EVERY kid does it — and so do adults! There is a natural impulse to pick your nose because dried mucus creates a sensation of itchiness and may even feel like it is blocking your ability to breathe. That being said, it is also considered very rude and unsanitary in our (and most every other) society to pick your nose and, even worse, to eat the mucus despite the fact that this, too, is a very common and normal thing kids do. This is why nose picking is one of those things we tell our kids not to do.

You can teach your children not to pick in public, and to use a tissue. Give your children a reason they can understand in addition to just “we don’t do that.” Show them alternatives like using a tissue properly or going into the bathroom.

Explain the purpose of manners — “other people will be very put off from you if you pick your nose in front of them” — and the importance of healthy habits — “if you put your dirty finger in your nose, it can make you sick" and "if you pick your nose and touch someone else without washing your hands, that can make them sick.”

But what if your little darling is picking away in a public place despite your repeated attempts to explain why and how to stop it?

If the nose-picking is part of a pattern of behaviors that are in direct opposition to what you have asked or told them to do, it might be more about breaking the rules than clearing the nasal passages.

This kind of picking may be driven by being oppositional. Is that normal? It often is, especially during certain ages and developmental stages (the terrible twos or adolescent rebellion), or when children feel angry or powerless about other things and this is their way of expressing those feelings. Even when it is normal, it’s good to talk with children and try to help them sort out their underlying feelings — while still telling them there are rules they will have to follow.

If nose picking at church is accompanied by tripping the minister or stealing money from the donation basket, then the escalation of oppositional and defiant behavior can signal a real problem, one that you may need help with.

What if a child is picking endlessly and they are getting repeated nose bleeds, their nose hurts or they seem to be pretty much living with a finger up their nose? In very rare instances, nose picking can be a compulsive habit that is driven by a form of obsessive compulsive disorder called rhinotillexomania. It is in the same family of disorders as compulsive nail biting, hair pulling and skin picking. The cause is not known, though these things often run in families and increased levels of stress make them worse. Behavioral therapy can help, though people often don’t know that and so rarely seek treatment.

Kids, and actually everyone, respond best to an explanation about why not to do something. The time for this explanation is NOT in the moment when they have been caught red-handed, or in this case booger–handed, and are embarrassed and therefore most defensive. Choose a more relaxed time to talk about hygiene, manners and tissues, and then choose a non-humiliating signal together that you can use as a reminder if they slip up.

Do you have an "Is this normal?" question about children, or parenting, that you'd like Gail Saltz to answer? Let us know on our Facebook page.

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