What do you do to stop a child from sucking her thumb? She sucks it while she twists her hair and is not at all seeing what is happening around her. She is 5 years old and a wonderful child. The dentist says we have to stop her before her teeth are out of line. Her pediatrician said to be patient. Should we bring her to talk to someone?

No, I would not hustle her off to a therapist just yet.

Children the age of your daughter find a kind of comfort in thumb sucking. Sucking is instinctual and brings pleasure. It should not be seen as regressive or an indication of some dire problem. Think of it as a random discovery. Your daughter discovered a pastime which was probably accidental. It was fun. She did it again, and a habit was born.

Habits fill time. Addictive habits, which this is, are hard to break. Dentists often advise stopping the habit, but in my experience, do not have many programs to help. Certainly, patience may be useful as well, but alone it will not stop the behavior.

Do not use words to chastise her or point out her behavior. Pair two things. First, gently take her hand and thumb out of her mouth. Squeeze her hand in warmth and greet her with a phrase such as "What a great kid you are." Then divert her into an activity. "I need for you to help me with..." or "How about we play..."

Addictive habits require time. Be mindful of her pattern and interrupt it with the gentle process repeated over and over.

When a child is a bit older, you might try rewarding her for the absence of the behavior. This is tricky, so let's stick with what we can do now.

By the way, I don't know any 15-year-olds still sucking their thumb. Like so many things, it does go away with socialization.

Dr. Larry Larsen is an Andover psychologist. If you would like to ask a question, or respond to one, you can e-mail Dr. Larry Larsen at lrryllrsn@CS.com.

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