What Can Thumb-Sucking Teach Us About Addiction?

It may appear a contradictory use of the word addiction at first, but thumb-sucking can be thought of as the first addiction many people have. As Susan Heitler, Ph.D. argues in Psychology Today, there are many lessons we can learn about drug addiction if we accept this definition and examine how children learn to stop thumb-sucking. It’s an important reminder of the challenges, motivations and problems drug and alcohol addicts face, but at the same time it bestows a new perspective on a familiar issue that can help you overcome your own issues.

The first addiction — and its benefits

Thumb-sucking is a surprisingly beneficial activity in early life. Research has shown, for example, that premature infants who suck their thumbs or a pacifier don’t stay in the hospital for as long as their non-sucking counterparts. It’s a soothing action, capable of relieving a baby who is upset or alleviating boredom, saving vital energy that would otherwise be expended in crying or fussing. It actually has physiological effects too, affecting both heart and breathing rates, as well as regulating stomach muscle movements and thereby aiding digestion.

Other studies indicate that thumb-sucking also serves to calm infants in new situations, enabling thumb-sucking infants to play independently for longer rather than rushing back to their mothers for comfort. Much like a smoker may light up a cigarette or a drinker might open a bottle of beer, an infant undergoing some stress can take a suck on his or her thumb to calm down a little.

Initial advantages give way to problems

The addiction parallels here veer into territory that many neglect to mention: There are some advantages to addictions from a short-term perspective. Chronic stress, for example, affects several systems and lowers the body’s immunities, making illness or infection more likely, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Therefore, something that lowers stress has genuine advantages in some respects.

Thumb-sucking usually continues until social factors (not wanting to appear “baby-like” to peers) and the potential impacts on dental health are brought to the child’s attention. Similarly, with drugs, the initial advantages quickly give way to the dangers of addiction and the specific substance chosen, and the individual realizes he or she needs to make a change.

As Freudian psychologists would argue, thumb-sucking is an example of an oral fixation, and is likely to be replaced in later life with other similar fixations. Whether you accept the theory of fixed developmental stages in this sense, it’s easy to see the logic in this claim. Children who suck their thumbs have effectively learned to pacify themselves through their mouths and activities developing in later life — particularly smoking — share obvious similarities.

Dr. Susan Heitler tells the story of her daughter, who when asked to stop using her pacifier, noticed her younger siblings sucking their thumbs and took up the habit for herself. If such a series of replacement continued and became adult behaviors in later life, it’s easy to see how a thumb-sucker would become a smoker. This underlines the benefits of developing a healthy replacement coping mechanism when addictions are stopped, rather than leaving the individual with a sense that something is missing.

Lessons on recovery from thumb-sucking

The first thing we can learn about addictions from the common toddler-age challenge of thumb-sucking cessation is how to address a problem. It’s important not to criticize children for their behavior and to avoid inducing feelings of guilt or shame, and similarly, the intervener should address the individual as an equal. You can’t approach a problem with an “I know what’s best for you,” authoritative attitude; instead, it’s important to treat the conversation as information sharing between peers. For thumb-suckers, parents may explain the social and dental problems that will result, and for drug users, this same approach is used with the more significant health risks, career consequences and interpersonal issues associated with drug and alcohol abuse.

The simple problem of thumb-sucking can also be a significant challenge to beat, suggesting obvious parallels with drug addiction. Although the initial chemical dependence is an additional concern for drugs, in both cases the challenge is to address the underlying psychological issues the individual is attempting to pacify and teach less harmful methods for accomplishing that task. The important thing to remember for parents attempting to stop thumb-sucking and loved ones trying to battle addiction is that relapse is common in both cases. It takes persistence, forgiveness and patience to help somebody overcome a firmly established habit.

This is crucial, because help from others is often an essential part of beating addiction. Children may require support and advice from their parents, and drug or alcohol abusers need friends, family, loved ones or people going through the same problem to help them through the tough times.

Thumb sucking is the proto-addiction, encompassing all of the elements of more severe adult addictions in a familiar, digestible and understandable format. There are many challenges to overcoming addiction, but the techniques developed to help with the more straightforward issue can still be useful later down the line too. Drug abusers, their families and treatment providers really can learn something from the thumb-sucking toddler.

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