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It can be frustrating when your kid chews on everything: their toys, erasers, pencils, nails, sleeves, and even hair! Chewing on everything is also an expensive habit because most of what they chew on often has to be replaced.
But chewing on things is very common childhood behavior which begins by babies trying to make sense of new objects in their environment by putting them in their mouths.
Until recently, it was thought that children who chew on everything or display other uncommon behavior had developmental issues. But we now know that kids who display such behavior do so because they are underreacting to sensory input.
In other words, your kid may struggle to process sensory information, or may react to sensory input in a different way than other kids. This means that they may require more sensory stimulation to respond to stimuli. This behavior is now commonly referred to as sensory-seeking behavior.
Understanding sensory-seeking behavior
There are five well-known senses – hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste – but there are also other less known senses which may influence how your child responds to sensory stimuli: Proprioception includes muscles and joints and relates to balance and body movement, and spatial orientation is associated with the ability to identify one’s position in space.
All these senses influence the behavior of a child with sensory-seeking issues. This child may:
- Constantly need to chew, bite or lick things – their clothes, teddies, pens, and so on
- Repeatedly crash into things
- Be a messy eater
- Be overly-touchy with both people and things
- Be attracted to loud noises
- Be unable to keep still or display “jumping behavior”. These children are often described as “hyperactive”
- Have poor fine motor skills which make them appear clumsy
- Appear “loud” – talk loudly, walk loudly, etc.
- Engage in dangerous behavior because of his or her need for further stimulation
- Have regular meltdowns
- Appear to be aggressive with other kids – pushing them, hugging them too tight, and so on
Kid chews on everything: Understanding chewing behavior in kids
Chewing behaviors are considered normal in babies and young kids. Who hasn’t desperately tried to stop their babies from mouthing everything? But this behavior gradually decreases as your child grows older. By the time they start school, most kids no longer feel the need to “chew on everything”.
But, there are some kids who have a harder time with chewing on things, and their behavior actually gets worse when they start school. This is when they’ll start chewing on their erasers or their sleeves, or nibbling on their nails and cuticles.
If your child chews on everything, that does not necessarily mean that they have a problem, but when it occurs in older kids, it may be sign of an underlying issue that is yet to be resolved.
Most kids who chew on everything do so because of:
- Stress and anxiety – they use chewing as a coping mechanism and are calmed by chewing.
- Sensory issues – some kids have a harder time processing sensory information than others. Such kids just can’t help themselves – it’s as though their brains tell them to “chew away”. Chewing is therefore a quest for sensory stimulation.
- Learned habits – for some kids, chewing on everything is a habit that they use either when they’re bored, anxious, tired, or stressed.
Should you worry if your child chews on everything?
It is normal to worry if your kid chews on things. It is normal to wonder whether you need to intervene or whether that behavior – like so many other behaviors in childhood – will disappear on its own.
If you’re wondering whether you should worry about your kid’s chewing behavior, the short answer is “it depends”.
There is no need to worry if your child occasionally nibbles on their nails, but if they are doing so every day, repeatedly, until they bleed, and if their behavior is interfering with their social, psychological and academic wellbeing, then you need to intervene.
Chewing behavior is also problematic in older kids because it can interfere with the growth of their permanent teeth.
The good news is that several strategies can help kids who chew on everything.
Tips to manage a kid who chews on everything
It can be tempting to use different forms of negative reinforcement (for example shaming) if you have a kid who chews on everything. But here’s the thing: this type of reaction will only make their behavior worse, or make them develop more problematic behavior.
Instead, you can help them manage their emotions and how they react to the stimuli in their environment.
Here are two things that can help:
1) Get to the root of the problem
A kid who chews on everything is often a kid with an underlying problem. Your child may be struggling with difficult emotions such as anxiety and may have identified chewing as a coping mechanism.
If your child is struggling with difficult emotions, resources such as The Emotions Kit propose age-appropriate strategies that can help them learn to express difficult emotions more appropriately.
2) Provide something better to chew on
Greater awareness of sensory-processing issues means that there are now tools that can help kids obtain sensory input without destroying their clothes, or nails, or pens!
Chewable fidgets are one of the best options for children who chew on everything. These fidgets can provide the oral stimulation your child seeks, and you have hundreds to choose from. You’ll find cool and discrete chewing fidgets here if you are looking for something you child can carry around everywhere.
That said, not all kids accept chewable fidgets, sometimes because of its texture or even because of its smell. If this is your kid, know that you can always find chewable options at home.
For instance, some kids love chewing on straws or on the valves of their water bottles, and you can also try sugar-free gum. Keeping crunchy snacks at home such as apples, carrots or nuts are also a good option if your kid chews on things.
Chewing on everything may be a sign that they have sensory processing issues. Helping them improve their sensory processing may therefore help reduce their chewing.
How to improve your child’s overall sensory processing
Providing sensory input can help your child get the stimulation that they seek, increase their awareness of their bodies, and help them adapt more easily to their environment.
Here are 10 activities that will help your sensory seeking child.
4 great indoor activities for sensory seeking children
1) Play dough has been providing sensory input to children for years! By allowing your child to squash, knead and pound, play dough activities provide proprioceptive input. These activities also strengthen your child’s fine motor skills.
2) Give your child a stress ball and let them squeeze it. Like playdough, this will provide proprioceptive input.
3) Yoga exercises are whole-body activities that provide considerable stimulation. Many kids love animal yoga poses where they get to “hop like a kangaroo”, “walk like a crab” “slither like a snake” or “jump like a cat”.
4) Finger painting is a powerful proprioceptive activity for your sensory seeking child.
There are also many great outdoor activities your sensory seeking child will love.
6 great outdoor activities for kids with sensory challenges
1) Swimming is one of the best proprioceptive activities because it is a whole-body activity.
2) Jumping on a trampoline is a great activity for a sensory seeking child because it will help them work on both their balance and their spatial orientation. Getting an indoor trampoline will ensure that child gets their sensory input, no matter the weather!
3) Pikler triangles or monkey bars stimulate your child’s entire body by encouraging them to pull, push, crawl, jump, twist and so on. A good choice means that they can use them for years.
4) Make your child plant their own garden or help in yours. Activities such as digging and weeding are all great for proprioceptive input.
5) Create a hopping obstacle race by placing obstacles on the ground (cardboard boxes, a hula hoop, sticks, etc.) and ask your child to jump either on, or in between, the obstacles. Make the race harder by varying the instructions (hop with one foot, both feet, etc.) or by increasing the distance between obstacles.
6) The wheelbarrow walk provides proprioceptive input and strengthens your child’s muscles. Grab their ankles and let them use their hands to get around. You can make the activity more fun by putting obstacles in their path.
Occupational therapists say that when it comes to providing activities for sensory seeking children, short but frequent multi-sensory activities are more effective than infrequent and lengthy ones.
An easy way to ensure that your child is getting sufficient sensory input is to make them participate in age-appropriate chores as often as possible.
For example, they can help you bring in the groceries, help in the garden, empty the dishwasher, be “in charge” of the laundry basket or the garbage bins (taking them to or from the curb), vacuum or even lawn mow if they are old enough. Proposing age-appropriate chore cards and asking them to choose several chores to perform is an easy way to make them participate in these chores more easily.
When your kid chews on things: final thoughts
If your child chews on everything, there is probably an underlying issue. While it may be possible to help your child work through these issues, there are occasions on which you may lack the tools or the skills to help them.
Please contact a therapist if you feel that your child’s sensory seeking behavior is interfering with their home and school life. A good therapist will be able to assess your child and to propose a personalized sensory plan to help them find greater balance.