It is common for someone to chew on their nails when they’re nervous or chomp on some gum, but it is a little different when children start to chew on non-edible objects like their shirt, pens, toys, shoes and other inappropriate items. Chewing on things other than food is a form of repetitive behavior. So how do you manage this behavior in your child?
A good starting place is to figure out the “why” behind your child’s chewing habit. A big trigger is anxiety. When a child is having a hard time managing frustration and anxiety they will sometimes begin chewing non-food items. One way to discover if there is a possible connection between chewing and anxiety is to track when your child engages in the chewing behavior. Take note of when and where it happens to see if there is a pattern behind the behavior. Another reason your child may be chewing on non-chewable objects is autism.
Sensory issues are common among people with autism. This means that your child could be seeking sensory stimulation by chewing on their shirt or other objects. One way to stimulate their senses in a positive way, away from their shirt, is to offer your child a variety of sensory-rich snacks such as foods high in chewiness and crunch. Some of these foods include carrots, dried mangos, chewy granola bars, or licorice. For a longer term solution- say once they are out of school, you could also offer sensory chew toys such as chewy pendant necklaces, chewing tubes, chewy bracelets, or other chewelry.
Keeping your child from chewing on his or her shirt or other objects sometimes only takes a small change in their environment. This can take their attention away from their chewing habit. You could also try engaging your child in deep pressure activities. If your child’s chewing is caused by anxiety, getting them to engage in deep pressure activities has been proven to have a calming effect. Some activities you could try include jumping on a trampoline, brushing the inside of their cheeks with an electric toothbrush, pushing, pulling, or lifting activities such as a playful game of tug of war or arm wrestling.
Why does your child chew on their shirt or other non-edible objects? In short, it makes them feel better. It is our job as parents and professionals to offer the child better alternatives to chewing inappropriate and in some cases, poisonous items. If we understand when the child feels the need to chew, we can offer a snack or chewy that is a better choice for that child and help them maintain self-regulation.