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When the CDC issued its COVID-19 guidelines to avoid touching our faces, most of us woke up to just how often we do it (about 23 times per hour!) and how little control we seem to have. For three decades, the doctors and therapists working with The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors have been developing effective therapies for curbing behaviors like skin picking and hair pulling. The good news is that the behavioral tools that treat these disorders can help you – and your young child (including toddlers) – reduce face touching.
Even with hard work, some face touching is going to happen. So be forgiving of yourself and your child as you learn these tips to stay healthy.
Increase self-awareness: You can't stop something you don't know you're doing
Often we touch our faces without even realizing we're doing it. When something itches or feels odd, we automatically touch it before we even have time to think about it. But it is possible to increase your conscious awareness of where your hands are headed. That moment of awareness is what makes it possible to take action to help yourself.
Tools to increase your body awareness
- Set a timer for five minutes and then sit and don't move your hands. Notice any itches you may want to scratch or sensations you want to address. Whatever you do, don't move your hands. Practicing body observation for five minutes a day helps you to be better at observing an urge or instinct without needing to address it.
- Stick notes around the house or reminders on your smartphone to check in on where your hands are at that moment.
- Wear Band-Aids or other adhesive bandages over your forefingers or thumbs to change the tactile experience when you touch your face.
- Consider an "awareness bracelet." These devices, for adults and children, alert you when your hand rises to your face. The device learns which movements you want to discourage and vibrates when they occur, giving you the chance to make the conscious choice to lower your arm.
Reduce temptation: itches and blemishes are finger magnets
It feels nearly impossible not to scratch an itch once you're thinking about it. And most people find it nearly impossible not to pick at a pimple. The mindfulness techniques above can help bring enough self-awareness to allow you to take control. But it's even simpler if you don't experience the trigger in the first place.
Triggers aren't always physical. Repetitive fidgeting behavior can be a response to an emotion such as anxiety or boredom. Noticing such behavior is a chance to check in with yourself about how you're feeling and how you can better address these emotions.
Tools to tackle your triggers
- Use a facial mask or moisturizer to soothe dry, itchy skin
- Wear acne dots as a treatment and barrier against touching pimples
- Pull your hair off your face to reduce ticklish strands
- Exercise regularly to reduce boredom and depression
- Practice deep breathing to calm anxiety
Fiddle and fidget: Give that energy somewhere else to go
When you need to release a little energy, or you crave sensory stimulation, consider fidget toys. But proximity is key. If your fiddles aren't right nearby, you're unlikely to seek them out once you're planted on the couch for an evening of TV bingeing. Place baskets of fidget toys around the house so they're within arm's reach wherever you spend the most time.
Keeping active with messy projects offers twice the protection. You are unlikely to touch your face when your fingers are covered in paint from an art project, mulch from the garden, or oil from tinkering with your car.
Favorite fidget toys
- Spinner rings
- Slime or putty
- Sensory brushes
- Variable pipe cleaners
- And, of course, fidget spinners
How to help toddlers and young children
Helping young children to not touch their faces is tough. Many of the ideas that help adults can be adapted for even your youngest one. Aim for reduction, not perfection.
Resist getting frustrated, panicked, or angry with your child about touching his face, since body-focused repetitive behaviors tend to increase when children experience fear, anxiety, and uncertainty (boredom and fatigue, too!). Also, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s not about teaching your child to consciously not touch her face. With toddlers and preschoolers, it’s more about training through redirection and helping them meet their sensory needs in other ways.
Use a calm voice and child-friendly terms to describe the situation. You might say, "It's always a good idea to keep our hands away from our face, but right now there are some extra bad-guy germs, and they try to get inside of us through our eyes, nose, and mouth to make us feel sick. Let's see if we can work together to keep the bad-guy germs out."
Children can't avoid touching their face completely, so try to keep your little one's hands extra clean. Make washing hands enjoyable by creating a funny song together, give a rubber ducky a sink bath, or see how many bubbles can pile up on his palm.
What to Do
Keep hands busy
We're all less likely to touch our faces when our hands are occupied. When choosing something to keep busy with, try to find things that have high sensory value, like slime, play dough, squishy objects, crafts, and anything interesting to the fingers.
If your child enjoys baths, have several a day. It's an opportunity to get clean and have fun at the same time. Consider some new bath toys such as a clean turkey baster, a mushroom brush, or other safe, recently cleaned kitchen items.
Throughout the day set up activities for your child that include messy fun such as finger painting, play dough, gardening, playing with sand, or finger painting with whipped cream!
Distract with other forms of touch
The skin is one organ, so stimulating another part of the body also helps to stimulate the face. Try a foot massage, a hair-brushing or styling session, or a back rub.
You can also try chew necklaces for kids who suck their thumb, bite their nails, or pick at their lips. They allow kids to get their sensory needs met without putting hands to their face.
For itchy eyes, wipe them with a clean, warm cloth.
Check to see if there is a sensory trigger that is leading to face-touching behavior. Keep hair pulled back and away from your child's face, keep her mouth clean after eating, and wipe her nose frequently to remove any irritants.
Touching is movement, so create other types of movement like dancing, jumping rope, yoga, bouncing on the trampoline, riding a bicycle, or just throwing a ball in the backyard.
Keep things positive
Resist criticism. Praise good performance and be encouraging about slip-ups.
When your child touches his face, don't draw attention to the behavior. Instead, redirect to another fun activity. You might say, "Let's put your sock puppet on!" Or "It's play-dough time!" Or, "Let's draw pictures!"
Any attention to a negative behavior has the potential to reinforce the behavior. Little kids think it's really interesting when their parents are upset, make faces, or sound angry. They often want to see if they can get their parents to repeat their reaction, so they engage again in the undesirable behavior. When you see your child touching his face, try to be neutral and matter of fact.
What not to do
Don't scare your child
Don't try to frighten your child with horrible consequences that will happen if she touches her face. Positive systems or reinforcement always outperforms negative ones.
Don't lose your cool
Don't get angry or frustrated if your child has difficulty following any of your tips and suggestions. You will just connect negativity with what you are trying to teach him. Keep it light and as much fun as possible.
Don't explain too much
Don't spend time trying to reason with a toddler. Long explanations will not increase compliance. Be short and matter of fact: "It's time to wash our hands! Then you can get a new sticker!"
When is skin picking, nail biting, hair pulling, or other touching a more serious problem?
Everyone, and especially children, occasionally pick at a pimple or scab, pull a stray hair, nibble a hangnail, pick a nose. Sometimes, these behaviors become repetitive and time consuming, cause visible damage, or lead to wounds that don't heal. For about 1 in 50 people, picking, pulling, and nail-biting behaviors are more than just a habit: They're a "body-focused repetitive behavior" that may require help to overcome.
The tendency to develop these problems runs in families. Stress, and also boredom, tend to exacerbate these behaviors, so they may increase and become truly problematic during difficult times. If these behaviors are disrupting your life – or your child's life – you can find more help at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.
NOTE: If you’re interested in getting for yourself or your child any of the tools mentioned by TLC as helpful in preventing face touching, see BabyCenter’s roundup of gifts for kids with sensory needs. It includes details on fidget spinners and the like and includes link to purchase.
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