I was the fourth child of six raised in a loving family with a very idyllic childhood. Unfortunately I came out of the womb sucking my thumb. My childhood memories aren't so much of sucking my thumb, but of playing outside, playing with my friends, tether ball, Cabbage Patch Kids, Garbage Pail Kids, and all the other joys that come with childhood. I have two older brothers, a sister five years older, and two younger brothers. When I was about seven years old I remember getting a lot of censure from my family about my thumb-sucking. My dad was constantly telling me I was too old and needed to stop sucking my thumb. My brain agreed with him. I WISHED I could stop. But something inside me was utterly incapable of complying with these requests. I remember my mom tried to use "Stops It" to get me to stop. It was basically clear nail polish that was applied to the entire thumb. It didn't taste great. It was downright nasty. But guess what? After sucking my thumb for about an hour or two it came right off. I got a lot of teasing from extended family and other adults in my circle. They were always saying "Does that thumb taste pretty good?" "How's that thumb taste?" "What's so tasty about that thumb huh?" And after enough experiences with Stops It, and attempting to self-analyze, I learned it's not about how it tastes.. it was how it.. felt.
By fifth grade my anxiety about not being able to quit sucking my thumb only increased my "need to feed." I started the habit of trying to only suck my thumb in private; when I was alone in my room, or if I had a big book to hide what I was doing. If I couldn't be caught, I couldn't be made to feel bad about it. Unfortunately, there were times I would slip up. I think I sucked my thumb a lot in 5th grade. I ran into a grade school friend some years ago who had been in my 5th grade class and she brought it up. She probably said something like "You still sucking your thumb?" To which I probably quickly replied while turning red, "No..." She said, "You sucked your thumb a lot in class." I had forgotten and didn't believe her. "Really! I remember you would sit like this" and she showed me how I'd put my elbows on my desk, both hands together near my face in an attempt to hide that I was sucking my thumb. The light went on. I remembered it now. I thought I was being so clever hiding at sucking my thumb in plain view.
From there on it was a constant battle, constant agony over an addiction I didn't understand yet couldn't conceive of quitting. It was some kind of chemical feedback that I desperately needed. I didn't care how I was ridiculed, I needed it to survive. As a ten year old I suffered a traumatic fall out with my close circle of five friends. I had to remain in their society yet as a pariah. This had nothing to do with thumb-sucking and is the topic for perhaps a separate therapeutic post. Maybe. This trauma intensified my need to feed. It was one of my only comforts. I made some new friends which led up to yet another traumatic blow and fall out at the age of fifteen. I was such a mousy-teenager, utterly insecure and absolutely no confidence in myself about anything at all. Then I found out I was diabetic. Talk about a killing blow. I was in the depths of despair for a year after that. I was suicidal. Or rather, more obsessed daily over killing myself. I was too chicken to do it. I wasn't so upset to end it all. I just took great comfort in fantasizing over how I could use my diabetic tools to end the pain and how "that would show them." I had very little friend support through this intensely difficult and dark time in my life. It doesn't take a genius to see how much I needed my thumb at that time. I sucked my thumb a lot at night in those days. By that age I had tapered my addiction off to mostly nighttime.
With a change of school and friends in my junior year, I came out of my shell and blossomed. Or as my father so poignantly put it: I came out of my cocoon and became a butterfly. I really became a social butterfly and gained confidence in myself for the first time ever in my life. I was a completely new person. My addiction is nearly non-existent during those dream-like two years of high school. I remember around the age of sixteen when I was a camp counselor at church Young Women summer camp. My friend Amanda and I were both totally excited to be counselors to the younger girls. I remember as we bedded down on the floor of our cabin in our sleeping bags I was brimming with excitement to confide a triumph to my then-best friend. I turned to her and whispered excitedly: "Amanda! I'm so happy! I finally broke the habit of sucking my thumb!" I am not sure I had ever told anyone else about my thumb sucking (if they didn't catch me in the act) but her reaction was rather underwhelming. Maybe she was exhausted and sleepy, maybe she didn't care, maybe she didn't really hear me, but I remember a very "non response" of a "hmph" or "okay." That didn't diminish my joy in that moment.
I don't know what happened exactly after that, but it was only a few months later I remember being in a shame spiral about the fact I had started up again. I didn't know why I needed it so much but the bare truth was I did. I needed it.
Fast forward ten years. I got married, had a son. All this time, I still needed to suck my thumb. I still had almost no confidence. I was just never blessed with it. I truly believe some people are just born with it. I wasn't. My husband knew about my addiction, it wasn't a problem. I probably tried to dismiss it like it wasn't a big deal (IT WAS. I NEEDED IT, DON'T YOU DARE TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME) saying things like, "It's just to help me fall asleep" and, "I only need to when I get really upset." Honestly it was just a part of who I was. I'd sooner cut my whole arm off than willingly stop sucking my thumb.
I'd been married about five years. We lived in a rural community where the homes are separated by two acres, lots of horses, fields, farms and cows. I had no friends in this area and a six month old baby. My husband had just graduated as a Doctor of Pharmacy, I had just graduated with a Teaching Certificate and Bachelor of Music Education. He was working, we had agreed I would not. By this point I was probably sucking my thumb out of loneliness. I had only made a few friends in my three years of undergrad study but we moved a state away and didn't keep in touch. This was before the days of Facebook and even Myspace. Heck, we were still resisting the movement to get a cell phone in 2004.
One day my husband's brother calls him and says, "There's a new game out, you HAVE to play it. It's called World of Warcraft." My husband was like 'meh.' Next thing we knew his brother comes all the way down for a visit, game in hand, with a free monthly subscription. He installs it on my husbands computer and we're both looking at each other kind of rolling our eyes saying 'yeah, yeah he's excited about a new game. It'll pass.' The game looked fun enough, but I hadn't been a "gamer".. well.. ever. The most video games I'd played up to that point was Autobahn and Castle on our Apple IIC, some other varying dungeon crawlers of the earliest type, Empire Earth, Starcraft and Age of Mythology during our courtship, and a lot of Diablo 2 after we got married. Okay, well, that sounds like a lot of gaming, but I really hadn't played very much at all.
One day while husband was at work I sat down and fired up his game. It had me curious at least. Little did I know what was about to hit me. A vast fantasy world that was filled with other "real people" playing the same as I was. This game was a MMORPG. A massively multiplayer online role playing game. This game threw me into a huge pool of people. We would "group up" and clear "dungeons" where we'd get special loot and items at the end. The whole experience was entirely intoxicating. I went from feeling very friendless, not to mention insecure and unconfident, to making many friends in a game where we collaborated to achieve goals, and, I flatter myself, I became rather popular. It required social skills, politeness, teamwork, leadership, and was just downright a breath of fresh air to my life. I noticed pretty quickly the drop in my need to feed after playing the game for a few months. It still existed, and was still a need, but it was much less required than before.
I can still recall times at the computer trying to play--it required two hands--and sucking my thumb. I could guide my character with my right hand while I sucked my left.... always my left. Then eventually I consciously shifted to sucking on my index finger. I think I knew I was heading in a good direction, and by weaning myself off my thumb explicitly, I could eventually wean myself off needing to suck at all. I would say it was another two or so years before I woke up one day and realized I had completely weaned myself of the habit. It was a glorious realization. It filled me with such relief ... there aren't words to describe it. I celebrated internally and shared the news with my husband. He was happy for me of course and didn't judge me. But we both had the same thought: I've only replaced it with another addiction. But it didn't matter to me. THIS WAS HUGE.
I played "WoW" for about five or six years total. I then quit the game for eight or nine years. During my time away from the game I never felt the urge to suck my thumb. I had truly broken the habit and it was a relief unlike anything I can communicate. Like a waterfall over a muddy bridge.
History Repeats Itself
Fast forward seven years: After eight years of struggling with infertility, we were finally blessed with a daughter, and eighteen months later a son. Our youngest son was a surprise and a sublime blessing to our family. I would be lying if I didn't admit that with the birth of each of my children, I had "Thumb Sucking Radar" in a big way. I watched them for any signs of the dreaded disease. Our first two children survived unscathed. I had thought so did our third. When I was in the hospital with him, I remember a lactation specialist was assisting me and she suggested putting his thumb in his mouth for pacification when he didn't need to feed. I said, "I don't want him to suck his thumb!" To which she replied, "Oh honey if they suck their thumb, then they were doing it in the womb." This was a relief to me, since he showed no sign of thumb sucking in his infancy. It should be stated that I exclusively breastfed him and used no bottles, pacifiers or binkies.
When he was three months old, I picked him up for a feeding and as I sat him on my lap and looked into his sweet face I noticed he was sucking his thumb. This. Was. A. Huge. Moment. In this moment, my heart cried out in agony. My brain screamed at me to tear his thumb from his mouth and tie his arm behind his back for the rest of his life. But my mommy instincts melted at the sight of it. It was stinkin' adorable. And yet one more thing happened: a missing gear fell into place for my own psyche. From the moment I saw his thumb in his mouth, I began a rapid journey of reflection that led me to some mind-blowing epiphanies about my childhood and life up to that point. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
First I pictured what my poor little boy's life would be like: the mocking, the teasing, the tormenting by peers and strangers. OH THE STRANGERS. I just knew I would get sick of strangers pulling his thumb out of his mouth and saying, "You don't need that." "Get that thumb out of your mouth." How difficult school would be for him. I thought about how he would pick up every disease known to humankind due to his little sponge fingers which would go directly into his mouth. The anxiety began to build, because at that time in my life, I was terrified of confrontation. How could I stand up for my child? How could I defend his right to suck his own dang thumb? You may think I'm jesting, but at that time, I was dead serious. This was a serious conundrum to which I needed to find a solution. But mostly, my heart broke at the surety of the shame he would one day feel because of it.
And that got me thinking. WHY is thumb sucking so shameful? Why? WHY?? Why does society look at it like it's the most disgusting, shameful thing in the world? My mind couldn't understand. Yes, I was biased, yes I had traumatic scarring related to the subject at hand, but it still didn't give me a logical fact-based explanation of why "we should be ashamed of sucking our thumbs." This was simply not true. And that is the first epiphany I had: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH SUCKING YOUR THUMB. If you're a thumb sucker, or former thumb sucker, I implore you to say this to yourself. I don't care what culture you grew up in, there is literally nothing immoral about it. There is nothing to be ashamed of. This really led me down a rabbit hole. I am very much motivated by logic, so even though I had an acceptable "answer" for the time being, I still wanted to know WHY society censured the world on this.
Years ago, when I had only one child, I had a friend who had two adorable boys. The younger of the two sucked his thumb. They came to my house one time for a visit. I believe the thumb-sucker couldn't have been more than about four or five years old. I remember during various times of our visit she would snap at him, "(Name) get that thumb out of your mouth!" I mean she wasn't mean, but stern, putting her foot down. In a we-talked-about-this-at-home-and-you're-not-obeying-the-rule-we-set kind of way. It felt like she was stabbing my heart. It was very, deeply, cutting and painful to see her berate her own child like that. I must interject here--I don't judge her, I think she's an amazing mother and woman, but I am an empath. I feel others pain and rejection very deeply. If you're getting mad at me in my face, I FEEL your anger, and I will cringe, and melt into a crying mess most likely on the spot. I feel others emotions deeply, and I believe I felt that poor sweet boy's shame in those moments. She said it again to him as they were getting their shoes on to leave. Once they were buckled in the car and I was talking to her through the rolled-down car window I recall her saying "(Name) are you sucking your thumb??! You better not be!" Each and every time she did that my insides SCREAMED at me to correct her. To say... something. I had no idea what. But it felt so wrong to me, and I couldn't exactly say why.
So there I was, nursing my three-month old, and realizing just WHY I should've, or at least wanted to say something. And the more I thought about it, the more my Mama Bear came out. Another thing about me, and it's part of being an empath, is I am a huge advocate of the underdogs of this world. If I see an injustice that I can do something about.. I will act. I will play devil's advocate tooth and nail if it means defending the little guy. I will also be a quiet friend that they need if that's all that is required. So my youngest thumb-sucking son just became The Biggest Underdog of the Universe as far as I was concerned. And this was a problem. Because I don't do well with confrontation, or anything broadly resembling anything that could be in someone's wildest imagination to be even close to something like a confrontation. I was terrified. But I knew I could overcome it. I had to. I had no choice. My fate was before me and I wasn't going to shrink from my moral obligation.
Before I wax too philosophical, I'll say that I waited and watched my son in the following months. I wanted to make sure this was really happening, and that it wasn't just a phase. It happened. It wasn't just a phase. But it was incredibly enlightening for me as an individual. I am a huge fan of self-discovery. Getting to know oneself is the greatest service we can do to help ourselves in this life. I was pretty much clueless about myself until about the last six years. And I didn't realize I didn't know myself. And every time I learn something new or have an epiphany about myself, it feels so incredibly cleansing--and powerful. Knowledge really is power when it comes to knowing who you are.
Within about a week of my son starting sucking his thumb, I had come to the following conclusions:
- It is perfectly okay for anyone to suck their thumb, no matter their age.
- Society deems thumb sucking unacceptable for reasons which are not logical. It is a stigma associated with childhood and that is as far as I have been able to discern.
- Thumb sucking is very likely a sign of a child who needs "extra."
- I never had any confidence my entire life due to the fact that I was shamed, teased and belittled for sucking my thumb.
- I would not tolerate anyone berating my son for sucking his thumb.
I think #3 was the biggest epiphany of them all for me. Because to me, it was the "solution to the problem." I resolved to love my son deeper than any child that was ever loved. I vowed to build him up and make him feel like the King of World before he turned five (Okay not really but you get the gist). I knew I would shower him with love, affection, words of affirmation and any other tool at my disposal so that he would most assuredly NOT have the crippling shame and guilt that has been the millstone around my life. So I went to my husband. I discussed all of this with him. He is not only a saint but my biggest supporter. Even when he very strongly did not want me to go sky-diving, he supported me. Even when we (my tandem instructor and I) broke some of the tethers and had to EJECT the first chute, he supported me. So it goes without saying that he supported me 100% on "the Pathway to our Son's Happiness" that I presented him with.
#4 was HUGE. I underwent some serious mourning when I came to this realization about my entire life. I couldn't help but wonder what my life would have been like had I not sucked my thumb. Up to that point in my life I was convinced my insecurities were appearance-based. I had always been a little chubby (and I do mean a LITTLE) and always wanted to be thinner. This is a rabbit that I am still chasing, so I assumed this was the root of all of my insecurities. I am sure it contributes, but it is not the root. I am still trying to regain whatever confidence is accessible to me at this point in my life. My poor parents were just clueless. I don't blame them. They had six children. SIX. I can barely imagine having more than three. I don't know how my mother managed to give her love to each of her children on a daily basis. I can only imagine she did her best and probably scolded herself on days she felt she had failed in that goal. But the cold hard truth is: I was a middle child. I was a white personality middle child. And a triple whammy I was a thumb-sucker. By white I mean I wasn't an advocate for myself. I didn't know how to be. I was a doormat. When I was berated for sucking my thumb, I would put on a stone face and say nothing. Then go to my bedroom and cry and suck my thumb, for that was the only comfort available to me.
So when I mingled all of my past pain with the future I dreaded for my son, I vowed that it would not be his fate. I would NOT let what happened to me happen to him. I could help him.
The Plan aka "the Pathway to our Son's Happiness"
I told my husband we would never comment on our son's thumb sucking one way or another--ever. We would not joke about it, we would not tease him, we wouldn't even state it as a fact. It was a non-issue that required no attention. We would show him our love more than we thought we might need to. We would be there for him at any and every moment in his life. It was all very nebulous, but I knew he just needed MORE. More than I had received. More hugs. More kisses. More snuggles. More attention. More building up.
I think every parent is terrified of ruining their kids. I was terrified of shattering my children's confidence at a young age. And I was prone to exactly this as I tend to react more than pause and then act. With the catalyst of my son's new habit, I was a reformed mother. Perhaps I didn't change overnight, but I do believe I became a drastically different kind of parent. This was a daily conscious effort on my part, because we had the constant reminder of seeing his little hand in his mouth. I'm not gonna lie, it was adorable. Precious. I'm glad at his one-year-old photo shoot we got some good photos of him sucking his thumb. It's who he is.
So, the following years I learned to stand up for my son. It is still hard as he's now four years old. I have a very difficult time telling people close to me (say, grandparents and family friends) "Please don't do that. It's okay if he sucks his thumb." I haven't had to say it too often, but I'm proud of myself for when I did. I think I may have blown my parents mind when I gave them the Speech, a truncated version of the Plan. I politely asked them not to tease him, or comment on it at all. My dad acted a little affronted like, "What? I would never! Of course!" But really, I was most worried about him as he was the one I remember giving me the most "flak" as we say.
Our little boy very early on developed strong confidence. I'm not saying it was my doing, but it was a balm to my soul to see it. I felt the plan was working. A month ago he turned four. This boy, this sweet, affectionate, loves-to-snuggle boy that I adore is the most stubborn child I have ever met. Two times we have tried to toilet train him. He just wasn't interested at all. AT ALL. We tried bribery, begging, coaxing, threats, leverage, emotional blackmail (just kidding), nothing was working. I realized, he is not going to do this until he is good and ready. It has to come from within. It almost has to be his idea. But I digress. Despite all this frustration (SO MUCH FRUSTRATION) and feeling of hopelessness... imagining myself changing his diapers when he's seven.. *shudders*... I felt I succeeded at showering him with my love. Which, I'm not gonna lie, when I'm up to my elbows in his excrement and all I wanna do is strangle him.. it's hard. (sorry.. hahahahaha!)
Okay so leading up to his fourth birthday, I made a very big and vocal point of saying what a "big" boy he would be when he turned four. However many other ways you can say that, I said it, and tried to get my family to follow my lead. I was mostly hoping this would segue beautifully into him feeling ready to potty train.... it didn't. That aside, on his fourth birthday, he said something so shocking out of the blue that I instantly wrote it in his journal: "January 22, 2018: (My son's name) just said something so shocking I had to come and immediately write it down. While playing Ninjago video game he stopped and said to me: 'Mom, I don't suck my thumb anymore. I don't suck my thumb anymore 'cause I'm a big boy.' I said, 'Ok, if that's your decision I'm okay with it.'"
I went on to say that I didn't think there was much truth to his comment. And added a note later on that day that said he was sucking his thumb. But the fact that HE came up with that idea on his own was huge. HUGE. No one in our family says anything to him about needing to quit sucking his thumb. I can't imagine there is anyone outside of our family that would have any capability of communicating that to him. Possibly his church class teacher but I highly doubt it. I digress. Skip forward to this week. About four days ago I noticed that he said something rather offhand like, "I don't need to suck my thumb anymore." He wasn't saying it with gravity nor to anyone in particular. Later in the day I realized he hadn't sucked his thumb that whole day. So of course, now I was watching him. Closely.
I watched him closely at bedtime, sure he would fall back into it. He didn't. I watched him first thing in the morning when he's groggy and climbs onto my lap for a snuggle with his thumb and his blanket. He didn't. He has since then started putting his fingertips in his mouth. Not sucking on them. If you turned your hand toward your face opened your mouth, and pulled down on your teeth with your fingertips, that's kind of what he does. Occasionally his mouth is closed around his fingers and he's sucking on them. It's possibly his own way of weaning himself off his thumb. But I have yet to see him sucking his thumb since that day and I have to say.. it's a heady feeling. I don't want to pat myself on the back and say "I did it! I was right! My way worked!" because let's be honest here it's only been a few days. And who can possibly say that his quitting has anything to do with anything I have done. It may not. But what is more satisfying than him actually quitting sucking his thumb, is that it is 100% (as far as i know) HIS OWN IDEA. My ever-present fears of his future teasing are evaporating as I type this epic saga.
If you came here for the TL;DR, I'll summarize it as follows: It's okay if there are children in your lives who suck their thumbs. I implore you, for their own mental health, not to belittle them. Not to tease them. I have emotional scarring that I still haven't gotten over. But with my son's success story at your disposal, I pray this post may do one child in the world good. Just one parent with the guts to stand up for their own child's right to suck their thumb. It is an emotional need. It's not a dirty habit. It is an intrinsic part of them and to remove that before they are ready will only lead to an addiction to something else. Do you really want your child addicted to something WORSE than thumb sucking? (And for the record, addiction to WoW is probably worse, but it was a means to an end, so there it is) Love them more. Give them more. Build them up more than you think necessary. Perhaps I have succeeded in filling that hole in my son's life so that his thumb is no longer required. I can only pray that I am right.