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Breaking the Rule of Thumb

Dealing with societal pressure and issues of adolescent transition, lots of teenagers suck their thumbs -- and, surprisingly, their peers don't care.

March 06, 2000|Helen Ubinas | HARTFORD COURANT

It happens unconsciously for Carmen Rivera. One minute she's sitting in class, watching TV or talking to friends on the phone, her hands at her side or on her desk. Next thing she knows, her thumb's in her mouth.

"I've done it forever," says Rivera, a popular 16-year-old sophomore at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, Conn.

"I tried to quit for two weeks because I didn't want my teeth to get messed up, but I ended up going right back. I do it all the time, when I'm bored, when I'm hungry or tired, whatever."

From middle school to college, thumb-suckers are speaking up and coming out. No one's sure if their numbers are increasing or if the act has simply become socially acceptable. But many teachers and parents say that in the last five years or so, they've noticed otherwise mature teenagers unabashedly sucking their thumbs while their peers barely raise an eyebrow.

"It's like everyone is used to it," says September Chatfield, a Hartford resident whose teenage cousin sucks her thumb.

"I've never heard a kid, never seen one, making fun of one of these kids," says Vic Neumann, a teacher at Bulkeley who's never made thumb-sucking an issue in his classroom. "These kids have so many more serious problems, the last thing to concentrate on is them sucking their thumbs."

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Experts say the habit has a lot to do with issues of adolescent transition and societal pressures. Thumb-suckers, on the other hand, offer simpler reasons: It relaxes them. It comforts them. It makes them feel safe.

"It just feels good," Rodriguez says.

In South Carolina, 12-year-old champion wrestler Brandon Bridges sucks his thumb before his matches. He might feel self-conscious, he says, if two of the biggest bruisers on the team weren't sucking their thumbs right alongside him.

"I don't think anybody really cares. Well, except for my parents," Brandon says. "It calms me. It makes me feel comfortable, especially when I'm nervous or something." Brandon says he's counted five girls and three boys at his school who suck their thumbs as regularly--and enthusiastically--as he does.

Parents, desperate to get their kids to stop, try everything from shame to threats.

"You'll get vampire teeth," one teen was warned. Others resort to bitter-tasting concoctions they slather on their children's thumbs "for their own good." But for most devotees, nothing beats the power of the thumb.

"He has had girlfriends who, to my knowledge, never brought it up, much less laughed at him for it," says Brandon's father, Glenn D. Bridges. "Family members used to reach up and pull his thumb from his mouth. He seemed unconcerned about the image it projected and says some of his classmates also suck their thumbs, so he wouldn't be the only one."

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Thumb-sucking transcends race, income and just about every other societal distinction. There are no hard numbers for teenage thumb-suckers, but a Web page dedicated to adult thumb-suckers suggests there are more thumb-suckers than most people think. Before being showcased last year on the TV show "Extra," the site was getting about 60 hits a week. Afterward, the average was 800. Offering "advice, information and acceptance for adults who suck their thumbs," the site also includes confessions from thumb-suckers across the country.

Harvey, a 49-year-old lifetime thumb-sucker and Web master of the site, declined to give his last name, but he is hopeful that the bravura of younger thumb-suckers will make the practice more acceptable.

"It's their confident attitude combined with a well-defined sense of themselves that permits this socially unacceptable behavior to suddenly be OK," he says.

Theories about why people suck their thumbs into adolescence and beyond are plentiful and varied, from oral fixations to emotional fulfillment to laments about growing up too fast. Brandon's dad blames his ex-wife, who, he says, weaned the boy off the pacifier too early.

"For a lot of teens, it's a time of being caught between a child and adult world," says Amy Beth Taublieb, a New York clinical psychologist and author of "A to Z Handbook of Child & Adolescent Issues."

"They want very much to be treated as an adult, but at the same time they are scared of being one.

"It's a basic psychological principle that whenever someone is under very intense anxiety and fear, they tend to revert to behavior that comforts them," Taublieb says.

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Still, many wonder what has changed to permit such blatant public display. The answer could be as simple as fashion. Not long ago, sucking on pacifiers worn on cords like necklaces was all the rage. The trend didn't last, but it may have laid the groundwork for true thumb-suckers to come out and stay out.

Whatever's behind it, most parents concede that if thumb-sucking is the worst habit their teens pick up, maybe they shouldn't complain--too much.

Glenn Bridges, for one, says he'd encourage Brandon to suck his thumb forever "if it prevents him from turning to cigarettes or other drugs to calm his nerves before a wrestling match or some other stressful event."

"Although, I would be lying if I didn't say I would be thrilled if he stopped."

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