Thumb Sucking or Resourcefulness

Some of the habits (in the form of physical actions) serves the purpose of anchoring. These actions help us to calm down in troubled waters. Children are no different. Thumb sucking is one such habit.

The other day, a friend of mine came home and their daughter, about nine months old, was sucking her thumb. I eagerly expressed my joy on seeing her sucking her thumb. My friend, obviously quite puzzled by this, asked me “why am I glad, when the whole world fusses over sucking? So I asked him, “What do you do when you are under stress or trauma? When you are lost, when you cannot think of a solution? My friend was quite surprised by this kind of questioning and fell quiet, instead his wife answered. She said, “Sometimes when I am really tense, I take the name of God”. I replied, “That means you too suck thumb”! This confused both of them even more.

I continued my questioning, “Why do you think your daughter sucks her thumb”? Their answer was quite logical, they said, “She sucks her thumb, because she finds this is very soothing. It is in a way, a replacement of the same feeling that she gets when she suckles and nurses from her mother’s breast”.

I said, “Exactly, just like when you take name of the God and that soothes you, gives you inner peace, the child has found a way to seek that inner peace. Just as when we’re angry, we work through different strategies – like clinching and unclenching fist, counting till ten etc. Similarly when your child needs some emotional support, instead of an outburst, the child has actually found a way to be calm, to be resourceful.” “Is this not better than the child crying, or becoming cranky or throwing the physical tantrum. Instead your child has found a way to take care of herself and her negative state of mind, has found a way to respond to stressful situations, which come to all of us time to time.

Somehow, we tend to think that just because a particular behavior does not seem to be in line with adult way of doing things – it must not be productive. However, each one of us just uses different strategies, rather, uses different internal resources to take care of ourselves. The more we encourage the child towards his or her own way of handling a situation, the more we help the child become emotionally independent and the more the child access the strength within.

My friends, who had been quiet, expressed another doubt, “But I do not normally use any such external support. I just sort myself out. Also what if the child sucks thumb even when not distressed.” I continued, “What research has also shown – that if a child is left on her own, sooner or later the child finds another way to take care of her distress and leaves the sucking of the thumb. However, research also shows that the more we fuss and nag about the sucking of thumb (or any other undesirable habit) the more the child likes to suck the thumb and more than child finds difficult to leave it.

Any habit gets worse, and gets more strengthen when we nag and when we constantly try to correct the child, as this becomes a constant reminder of the habit itself. You cannot get the kite to soar, by constantly tugging at the string; rather you need to ‘let it out’ more. More importantly, we believe that all the resources we need to manage ourselves are inside us – it is like a well inside. What we need is a bucket to access these resources. A child sucking her thumb has found a bucket, a way to do that.

Theoretically, this is called Anchoring. Which is when we connect an internal resource through a physical action, or a visual or a word? Counting beads, chanting God’s name, a high five, the famous Indian cricket team huddle, words like ‘bravo’, a thumbs-up sign, are all examples of anchors – which connect and help us to access any internal resource inside us – be it confidence, courage, peace etc.

So let the child build internal resources and pathways to access them. Let the child use his or her instincts to take care of herself. Let the child be more self reliant. Let the child suck her thumb.

I had designed a T-shirt, for a child, which read, in hindi, “Mera angutha, mera mooh, tumko kya?”(translated – My thumb, My mouth, What’s your problem?)