Hollylu’s Tip of the Month
Q: I was at the MOPS group this morning and really enjoyed your talk! I do have a question if you have time to answer that would be great. I have a 10 year old son who is cracking his knuckles and driving everyone else in the family crazy with it. He is a highly capable/gifted kid and it seems to happen when he is bored, like while watching TV or in the car. He is more sedentary but has always had a physical “tic” of some sort. Do you have any suggestions?
A: What you are describing is incredibly common. Especially in boys around 9-14. It’s nervous energy trapped in the machine. It shows up most in “down time” activities. Get a hand exercise squeeze ball. You can also make them cheaply by filling a heavy duty balloon with flower or popcorn and tying it off like a bean bag. Or you can get a “nutcracker” looking squeeze thing at any Big 5 or exercise place. Just ask for equipment that focuses on grip strengthening. All of these things are age appropriate and sort of cool – because they are for “buffing up”. In addition, I would have him start by squeezing his hands together as hard as he can (but not to the point of pain) in 5 short repetitions. This gives deep, proprioceptive information that replicates some of the neurology of knuckle cracking. You can be stranded without your tools, but you are never stranded without your hands – so he always has one tool to use no matter where he is!
To retrain the behavior, make all of these “tools” available in his key areas. Keep a basket full by the TV and several in the seat pocket of the car. I’m sure this topic has already come up with him. But it’s good to start the conversation from a neutral stance. “Hey, right now you are growing. Your brain and your body. And sometimes, energy just flat out gets trapped in the machine. I understand you need to move. And I want you to take care of your body and give it what it needs. However, the knuckle cracking is potentially harmful to your joints and fingers. And the sound drives me bonkers. The good news it that there are tons of different things you can choose to appropriately release that energy!” Then show him all this cool stuff or shop for it or make it together.
Designate a “warm up period”. Usually about 3-5 days. In this time, you remind him to switch to his tools whenever you hear him cracking his knuckles. Expect that the first day or so will go great and then he will fall back into comfortable habits. If you ever see him using his tools appropriately (self monitoring) then praise like crazy and throw in a reward or two (e.g. yummy snack, baseball card – some small motivating thing). Keep talking about the warm up period. “Staring on Monday, I will expect you do be doing this yourself.”
When warm up is over, then you move to “establish the pattern”. Keep everything positive. So you start with 5 (make up a number) cards/points/marbles (whatever). Every time you have to remind him to use his tools take one point away. IF there are any points at the end of the day then he gets something cool (small but motivating, something he can not earn or have in any other way. You will have to keep the reward rather novel for a 10 year old. Kids this age also enjoy “cashing in smaller tokens for something larger”). I set the number every morning based on the amount of time we have together. So on days I barely see my kids, the number is three. On Saturday, the number bumps up to seven. Etc. Don’t show much grace. When the cards are gone. They are gone. BUT you can try again tomorrow!!! I always adjust the number the next day to up the likelihood of success. It takes about 2-3 weeks to really establish a new pattern. Sometimes 6-8 if it’s hard core. Basically, you are teaching your kid to listen to his body and meet his physical/emotional needs in appropriate ways. A skill with lifelong dividends!!
When the pattern is established with no errors for 2-3 weeks – switch to maintenance. Now your intervention is only punitive. Explain that he is now in charge of his body. Remind him that he is capable of taking care of his physical/emotional needs with appropriate behaviors/tools. But in the real world – the cops are not going to pull you over to thank you for going the speed limit. They are going to pull you over when you are speeding. (The real world can be a bummer). So you are only going to point out when he has not made an appropriate choice. I attach something directly to the behavior. “If you crack your knuckles, then 10 push ups.” You can show more mercy and grace in this phase. Like, “when we get home, 10 push ups.” Or, ” instead of 10 push ups make it 5 because I know you’ve had an intense day.” But always something. None of this will work if you aren’t very very consistent. That’s why I usually recommend only working on one behavior at a time. Not because of the kids, but because of the work it creates for the parent.
Basically, boys this age fidget. I’d ignore everything you can. But knuckle cracking usually only gets more ingrained with time. It’s very similar to nail biting. So, as a mom, I’d go after that one. Increase his overall physical diet and get some deep muscle action going several times a day.
Finally, I usually share with my older kids stuff I am working on. I keep reassuring them that we are “all working on something”. It’s important to constantly send that message so that correction doesn’t feel like criticism. If the kids feel like “mom’s got my back” then you are managing to get the correction across with enough love and patience that they don’t feel burdened but DO FEEL CHALLENGED.
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