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Why is My Toddler Being Weird: What are Self-Soothing Behaviors?

Is your toddler being weird or simply engaging in self-soothing behaviors to cope with their emotions?

Toddlers are adorable, aren’t they? Even when they’re screaming at bedtime, there’s still a cuteness there that can’t be ignored. When your toddler’s not being totes adorbs, they may be exhibiting weird behaviors that you don’t understand. These behaviors can range from rubbing their hands together, thumb-sucking, to rocking back and forth. 

First, let’s unpack the word “weird”. Generally, this is met with negative connotations; however, when we use it we’re talking about behaviors that seem out of place but aren’t harmful in the long-term. These are referred to as self-soothing behaviors that toddlers use to calm themselves down, show that they’re excited about something, need attention, or simply regulate their emotional state. These behaviors can carry on into adulthood and the majority are harmless. However, there are some that are cause for concern. We’ll get into those later and how our smart companion, Snorble®, can be used as a tool.

What are the most common self-soothing behaviors?

Self-soothing behaviors develop in your child’s early years and are repetitive. To the child, these behaviors are habitual and used for comfort or to produce a sense of calm

Common self-soothing actions are:

  • Thumb-sucking - some tots will also suck on their clothing or objects, or bite their thumbs, clothes, or objects
  • Rocking - this can be a back-and-forth motion, side-to-side, and some kids rock when they’re sitting while others do it when they’re standing (or both)
  • Hair twirling - the twisting and turning of a lock of hair is usually done in the same area
  • Pulling the eyebrows, eyelashes, or hair - some youngsters will pull their lashes/brow/hair out completely while others gently tug
  • Nose picking - kids love boogers and don’t realize that it’s not the best idea to loot around their nasal cavity and eat the gold they find
  • Skin picking/scratching - some toddlers will scratch until they break their skin to pick at it
  • Cracking - this can be the knuckles or any body part that makes a sound when cracked
  • Nail and/or cuticle biting - some children will bite lightly whereas others will chomp on their nails or cuticles until they bleed
  • Masturbation - it’s normal for a child to discover their private parts, as long as they know these parts are theirs and theirs alone and that this an activity that they can’t perform publicly 
  • Head banging - some toddlers will bang their heads against soft surfaces causing no damage to their domes, some will bang their heads against hard surfaces and that is cause for concern (more on that in a bit)

These behaviors will cease in time or if they don’t cease completely, your child will perform them less and less as they learn to control their emotions and how to handle what life throws at them. 

Why do toddlers self-soothe?

For the most part, toddlers perform self-soothing actions in an attempt to understand their emotions. Their brains aren’t yet equipped with the tools to match reactions to their emotions so they use these self-soothing techniques to deal with what they’re experiencing whether it’s being tired, feeling sad, getting angry, having fun, etc. 

Another reason your youngster might self-soothe is good old-fashioned stress. Even adults  can’t always cope with stress. Now imagine a toddler trying to deal with it! They can barely speak in full sentences, let alone understand their feelings properly and, with stress in the mix, it’s hard for a child to know what to do besides self-soothe. 

Tiredness is an indicator as well. Often, when children are tired they engage in self-soothing techniques to prepare their body for sleep. Other factors include boredom and hunger. Remember, your little one hasn’t fully grasped the concept of time yet and may not understand that they have set eating and sleeping schedules. To a hungry or bored toddler, self-soothing behaviors give them something to do and in the case of nose pickers, something to eat.  

What to do when you see your toddler exhibiting self-soothing behaviors

Generally, these behaviors are more irritating to watch than for your child to perform them. You may worry that they’re hurting themselves or all the over-stimulation will tire them out. When you see your kiddo getting all self-soothy with it, you can:

  • Save the judgment. No matter what they’re doing, they shouldn’t be shamed for it. Talk to them about it and explain why this is a private behavior (for masturbation) or why this behavior isn’t safe (head-banging, picking until they bleed, pulling their hair etc.). When talking about it, you can get a sense of why they’re doing it and maybe even nip it in the bud before it gets severe like if they’re biting their nails until they bleed. The more emotionally present you are for your child, the more you can help them identify and verbalize their feelings.
  • Reward them when they’re not engaging in these behaviors. When you notice that your kiddo isn’t performing their usual self-soothing ritual, you can give them a small reward. 
  • Introduce different behaviors. If your toddler is twirling their hair so hard that it’s falling out, introduce a new behavior that won’t cause damage (even if the damage isn’t permanent). There are also physical tools they can use like fidget toys that are age-appropriate and can replace their current self-soothing behaviors. 
  • Show your little one how you cope. If you can show your little one how you self-regulate your emotions and handle stress, they will be influenced by your behaviors and adopt the same ones instead of scratching, picking, or whatever they do to self-soothe.
  • Engage in tension-relieving activities instead. Some children need sensory stimulation to help quell their self-soothing behaviors. Try tension relieving activities like jumping, running or anything that can give your kiddo a chance to release the nervous energy that is leading to them twirling their hair or rocking back and forth. 

Causes for concern: when weird becomes damaging

Although most self-soothing actions are harmless, if you notice that your child’s behaviors are violent and cause them harm like banging their head against the wall or scratching their skin until it’s raw, you should contact your pediatrician. 

When self-soothing becomes damaging it could signal an underlying issue bubbling up to the surface such as:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Tic Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Tourette Syndrome or Transient Tic Disorder 
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Self-soothing with Snorble

Snorble is made to be hugged and cuddled. Moreover, our smart companion is designed to show your kiddo healthy habits and aid with their social-emotional development by providing the tools necessary for them to thrive educationally, emotionally, and socially. Snorble also has a customizable bedtime experience that will send your child off to dreamland through wind-down activities that prepare them (and you) for a good night’s sleep. 


Photo by Lobacheva Ina on Unsplash


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