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Why grade-schoolers pick their nose
Although some people consider it a "nervous habit" — a category that includes thumb sucking, nail biting, hair twisting, and tooth grinding — nose picking isn't necessarily a sign that your child is overly anxious. Kids usually pick their nose because it has something in it that doesn't feel right.
The most zealous nose pickers tend to be children with allergies, because the heavy flow of mucus and its subsequent crusting give them a "something's up there" feeling that makes it difficult to leave their nose alone. Certain environmental conditions also make kids more likely to pick; if your heating or air-conditioning system is drying out your child's nasal passages, for instance, he's more likely to have a nose-picking problem.
What to do about nose picking
Nose picking would be completely harmless except for one thing: germs. Germs on the fingers can lead to small skin infections inside the nose, and fingers that have been in a nose are a great way to spread colds and flu. Remedying dehydration or congestion is the surest way to stop nose picking; meanwhile, teaching your child to use a handkerchief or tissue instead of his fingers may be the easiest way to deal with it. In addition, try these tactics:
Address his allergies. He's at the age now when he's gotten past the constant colds of preschool, so a stuffy nose is probably the result of allergies. The most common allergens affecting children are dust mites, animal dander, pollen, and molds. see tips on reducing the allergy symptoms that can lead to nose picking.
Keep him hydrated. If you live in a dry climate or if heating or air-conditioning seems to be drying out your child's nasal passages, offer him lots of fluids during the day, or try a humidifier in his bedroom at night. If he'll stand for it, a saline (not decongestant) nasal spray may also help.
Encourage him to wash his hands. No child is going to want to wash his hands all the time, but explain to him that washing them a few times a day and keeping his nails trimmed so that dirt doesn't build up behind them will help keep him from getting sick.
Teach him to use a handkerchief. Whether you give him a cloth handkerchief to carry in his pocket or keep him supplied with packets of tissues, encourage him to blow his nose occasionally and then wipe out his nostrils with a hankie in private. This solves the germ problem and will stand him in good stead in social situations.
Let him get silly. Tell him that if he must use his finger that it's best done in private. This may lead to some jokes or giggles about grossing people out with flagrant public nose picking. So much the better — if he can guffaw about it with you he'll have an easier time remembering what to do (and not to do) around other people.
Bite your tongue. While you can remind your grade-schooler that nose picking is unhealthy and impolite, nagging or punishing him when he picks his nose won't help. If he picks his nose unconsciously and decides he wants to break the habit, putting adhesive bandages on his fingers to make them harder to slip into his nostrils may help, since it allows him to catch himself in the act. But you'll probably want to do it only when he comes home from school so he doesn't have to answer embarrassing questions from his friends.
Keep his hands busy. "Sometimes a child who picks his nose just needs to do something with his hands," says Janis Keyser, a parenting educator and co-author of the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. She suggests looking at whether your child has enough down time, or whether he's spending an inordinate amount of time in passive activities, such as watching television. "We've moved children away from fine motor tasks, but as a species we have a need to work with our hands," says Keyser. Younger grade-schoolers love making big craft projects (glue, beads, feathers, decorative paper scraps, markers, construction paper, glitter), solving jigsaw puzzles, sculpting with clay, learning how to cook, and putting together simple models or building sets.
Check things out. If your child's exploring his nose so intensely that he's drawing blood, or if the habit seems to be one of a constellation of nervous behaviors (he's still sucking his thumb, picking his nose until it bleeds, and having trouble sleeping, for example), consult his pediatrician or a children's therapist. It could be a sign of anxiety or other emotional problem that he needs help with.
Ignore it. If you've done all of the above and your child still picks his nose occasionally, your best bet is to keep his fingernails short and snag-free — and to do your best to ignore the picking.
Learn about all the things that could cause a stuffy or runny nose in a grade-schooler.
Read more about children and allergies.