My eight-year-old son has a habit of cracking joints, especially of fingers. He does it constantly. We have tried to break this habit, but in vain. While he understands that it is not good, he involuntarily starts doing it, especially when playing or watching TV, among other things. He is otherwise a confident and well-behaved boy, doing well in school and at play.

Many parents get extremely hassled with this habit. One, because there is a feeling that it is harmful and can in later life lead to arthritis, and two, because it is simply an annoying thing to watch and listen to all day long! Knuckle cracking, making odd sounds from the throat, licking lips all the time, nail-biting, and other such behaviour in children, is the source of much friction in the house. Some of these lead to pretty serious self-inflicted bodily harm, especially nail-biting.

Body basics: Becoming self-conscious is part of growing up. Photo by Thinkstock.

Children’s preoccupation with their own bodies takes different forms right from infancy—thumb-sucking, playing with private parts, curling one’s own hair around the finger (to the point of forming tight knots and tangles), chewing on a collar or hanky, knuckle-cracking, blinking a lot, to name just a few. Several adults too exhibit this kind of behaviour, but it is not a given that children doing it will carry on doing it in their adult lives. So do see it as a passing preoccupation, to some extent.

Even if the origins of such a habit are in some kind of nervous disorder, it could be part and parcel of generally edgy moods and preoccupations in your son, unless you know that there is some particular tension in his life, like a particular subject in school, or an interpersonal issue, etc. If there isn’t anything specific, I suggest you just let it pass.

Explaining the ill-effects of such a habit, and then constantly trying to get him to stop it, is exhausting for everyone. Perhaps it is best to stop commenting on and correcting your son; advise other elders around to do that too. Try this for a month, and see what happens. Many parents resort to imitating the child, to show him how bad something that he does looks and to embarrass him into stopping. I would urge you not to do this with your son.

My daughter is 12 and I have noticed that she gets extremely self-conscious when any of her uncles (my husband’s brothers and cousins) visit. Sometimes she is almost flirtatious. While some of the men maintain their distance, others don’t quite know how to react as she sits close to them, wants to be spoken to all the time, and is cold and aloof with their wives. It’s all awkward for me. I also fear that someone may take advantage of her. I have refrained from saying anything to her except calling her away, giving her some task, among other things, when I feel she is behaving too inappropriately. These days she also chooses to wear figure-hugging T-shirts, particularly when men visit. She is very normal and nice with male cousins of her age and a little older; it is with the uncles that she behaves this way.

That your 12-year-old is acutely self-conscious is part of the growing pains we have all experienced. Along with being awkward, there are the insistent and confusing hormonal changes that dictate this kind of social behaviour, which comes across to others as strange, and from what you describe, embarrassing. She is becoming aware of herself as feminine, entering womanhood, and feels attracted to the opposite sex, particularly in the form of “safe" father figures like uncles. It seems she wants to be noticed by them and acknowledged as a young woman, not a little girl—she seems hungry for this kind of attention. It seems important to her to impress them in some way. She is too young to do it subtly, hence the rather blatant and clumsy physical behaviour.

Perhaps this is the time for you, and particularly her father, to acknowledge her emerging femininity, in verbal and non-verbal ways. This is not the time for her dad to be aloof or disapproving, however much her current behaviour puts you off. Do have a chat with her father about this, if he is willing to listen without expressing disgust or being extremely uncomfortable with the subject (which unfortunately many fathers tend to be in such situations).

You are right in gently pulling her away from such situations by giving her some tasks, etc.—however, it is important that you speak to her about it quite directly. She may bristle and argue and call you mean and other such names. Perhaps it is a good idea to have another woman with you during this conversation—someone she likes and respects, either one of your friends or an aunt.

You would have to go into important territory in this conversation, including talking about your fear of someone misreading her and taking advantage in some form. You would need to tell her that part of becoming a young woman is to sit at an appropriate distance from people, and not stick to them like children do. Totally avoid using judgemental words like “cheap", “shocking" and “silly".

Gouri Dange is the author of ABCs of Parenting.

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