Adult Thumb Suckers Come Out

GENERIC: sucking thumb, thumbs-up, okay
Thumbsucker, an indie movie that generated a lot of buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is the story of a boy trying to kick his thumb-sucking habit at age 17. Walter Kirn, upon whose novel the film is based, has admitted that the story is to some extent autobiographical.

He was a teenaged thumb sucker, but now, in his 40s, he no longer indulges habitually.

That's not the case for Harvey, who at age 55 still enjoys sucking his thumb. Harvey, a retail store owner in Long Island, N.Y., prefers not to disclose his last name for fear of ridicule.

Adult thumb suckers are not big babies, Harvey says. "There's a lot of them who are quite successful, with adult responsibilities," he tells WebMD.

But people are likely to see adults who suck their thumbs as immature. After all, most of us abandon the practice by age 8, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Shame And Tolerance

"There is a sense of embarrassment and humiliation from it," says Alan Manevitz, MD, a specialist in family psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

"The question is, why do we feel so strongly about this? I think people react to this similarly to the way they feel when they see public breastfeeding, or when they hear that parents sleep with the kids beyond a certain age," he tells WebMD.

Some adults who suck their thumbs aren't afraid to flaunt it, like Lindsey Boyes, 22, of Marietta, Ga. "For a while there, around middle school and high school, it was kind of embarrassing," he tells WebMD.

Even then, his friends came to accept it, and he has since gotten over any shame. It hasn't interfered with his love life, either. His wife, he says, "actually finds it quite cute."

Both Harvey and Boyes say they don't want to quit.

"It's just a very comforting and calm feeling," Boyes says. "Nothing else I've ever done or experienced can give me that same feeling."

"Most people who describe the sucking feel that it soothes them, calms them, gives them comfort, focuses them," Manevitz says.

What's The Harm In Thumb Sucking?

Manevitz says there is nothing inherently pathological about thumb sucking. An adult or adolescent thumb sucker is not necessarily any more deranged than a pen chewer or a nail biter.

"If somebody bites their nails, we may say that's a bad habit, or even that it's disgusting, but we don't see it as psychologically so damaging," he says.

But it can be a problem, he says, "if it's used in the way any habit is used to isolate somebody or restrict somebody from intimacy and other connections."

Everyone, except perhaps some Zen masters, clings to one thing or another for comfort. Thumb sucking is arguably a healthier means of seeking solace than polishing off a quart of ice cream or a pack of cigarettes.

Thumb sucking causes dental problems for some, but not all those who do it for a long time. The teeth may move and flare out where the thumb is habitually placed, but whether or not that happens depends on how hard and how often the person sucks.