Thumb-sucking and Holding Feelings Inside

We have raised my 6-year old daughter with Parenting by Connection ideas. One of my daughter’s friends sucks his thumb often. Suddenly, she began experimenting with sucking her thumb—she had never used her thumb as an infant. So for a few days, she went around at home with her thumb in her mouth a lot.

I asked her, finally, why she was sucking her thumb. She told me, “George does it. I do it to keep my feelings in. If I don’t do it, my feelings will come right out my mouth.”

I went over to her, and touched the hand of the thumb she was sucking. I said, “You can let your feelings out.” She burst into tears, and she sobbed hard and long. I have no idea why—she didn’t tell me what it was about. I listened. Then she stopped. It was over, and she was fine.  All she said about it was, “My feelings are coming out of my body.  All my feelings are coming out of my mouth.”

She moved on. She hasn’t sucked her thumb since. But once in awhile, she will tell me, “I’m feeling bad feelings inside.” I usually get close and tell her, “You can let them out,” and often she will say, “No, I don’t want to right now. I want to read,” or whatever she wants to do. So she doesn’t always have to show her feelings, she just likes me to know that she notices them.  She has this vivid perception that her feelings are inside he body, and that they come out of her mouth.

–a mother in San Anselmo, CA

2 thoughts on “Thumb-sucking and Holding Feelings Inside

  1. My daughter is six and she is still thumb sucking and I tried to ask her why she sucked her thumb but she was unable to tell me, I even suggested that perhaps she was holding her feelings inside but she told me she just does it (she was sucking her thumb in an ultrasound at 22 weeks). Her adult teeth are coming up crooked. I really need advice…

  2. Our children look to us for connection and if we offer warm attention, they will melt their upsets away through play and laughter, or crying and tantrums. The stress children feel dissolves as they find a safe place express their delight or their heavier feelings. Over time every child collects little sets of uncomfortable feelings. They sometimes feel restless, unsure of our attention, perhaps a bit frightened, or too separate to be fully pleased. Perhaps there were times in your daughter’s her life when she cried with no one around to listen or help her dissolve the tension. In lieu of physical closeness with someone else, she may turn to her thumb for reassurance.

    When your daughter is sucking her thumb, she may be signaling that she needs you close for a while, to simply hear and love her, so any uncomfortable feelings can be let go. Your warm, caring presence is the key to unlocking this healing process for your daughter. You honestly don’t need to talk too much with her about it. Your child simply needs an offer of connection.

    So your aim, at first, is to gently jiggle your child out of her habit, inviting her to connect with you, but not demanding that she perform. Good first moves to make are to offer her warm eye contact and gentle touch, perhaps with a “There’s my Sweet Girl!” You can spend a few minutes continuing to make contact. You might kiss her toes, then ankles, then knees, then tummy, then neck (nuzzle in!), ears, and eyelashes. You can tug gently on her ankle, saying, “Come on over and play with me!” You are reaching for her with your eyes, your voice, your touch, and your warmth. You are showing her that being with you is a safe space to experience, or share any and all of her feelings.

    It’s possible that the safety of feeling your warmth will make the knot of uncomfortable feelings stuck inside bubble to the surface, and a good healing cry or tantrum will erupt. Your love and attention is on its way in. Stay with her and let her know that these tears are okay. Your daughter is healing from some upset that had her sidetracked and upset about life. She’ll be animated and feel much closer to you when she’s done. She’ll feel more comfortable as your warm comfort replaces her thumb. This may take more than one session, so be patient. The key is to let her know that being with you is a safe and you are able to listen as she shares her feelings and expresses her hurts and needs.

    You will want to tell your daughter ahead of time that you’re going to give her help by putting her thumb aside. Give her a day’s notice by saying in the morning, “Honey, I know you want to suck your thumb in the car, but today, when we get in, I’m going to help you to hold my finger while Mommy drives.” Then, set aside some time and emotional reserve, because you may be kicking up big feelings of need.

    After many cries with you, she’ll have gained the internal confidence she needs to stay engaged even in challenging circumstances. Helping your child to become independent of her thumb or pacifier is a great place to begin learning to listen to how she feels. With your help and acceptance, she’ll be able to spend more time connected, more time learning, and more time being her intelligent and remarkable self.

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