Nail Biting, Ages 3 to 6

Nail Biting, Ages 3 to 6

Why does my child bite her nails? Your child may bite her nails for many reasons — out of curiosity or boredom, to

Why does my child bite her nails?

Your child may bite her nails for many reasons — out of curiosity or boredom, to relieve stress, to pass the time, or from force of habit. Nail biting is the most common of the so-called “nervous habits,” which include thumb sucking, nose picking, hair twisting or tugging, and tooth grinding. Nail biting is most common in high-strung and spirited children, tends to run in families, and is the most likely of the nervous habits to continue into adulthood. About 30 to 60 percent of elementary school students and 20 percent of adolescents bite their nails at some point; between one-quarter and one-third of college students say they still bite their nails.

How can I get my child to stop biting her nails?

Unless and until she’s ready, you probably can’t. Like other nervous habits, nail biting tends to be unconscious. If your child doesn’t even know she’s doing it, nagging and punishing her are pretty useless. Adults have a terrible time breaking themselves of habits like this — and most parents, when they think about it, realize that they regularly model such behavior. (Be honest: Do you tug on your ear or twirl your hair while you talk on the phone?)

If you truly can’t stand it, explain in a compassionate way that you know she can’t help biting her nails, but you don’t like to watch, so you’re going to leave the room for a few minutes. In general, though, as long as she’s not hurting herself and doesn’t seem overly stressed out, your best bet is to keep her fingernails short and snag-free and to ignore the habit. If you pressure her to stop, you risk intensifying the behavior, especially if she realizes that this behavior gets to you and a power struggle develops. Moreover, any direct intervention on your part — such as painting nasty-tasting solutions on her fingernails — is going to feel like a punishment to her, whether you mean it that way or not. The less fuss she associates with the habit, the more likely she’ll stop on her own when she’s ready.

One simple strategy, if you feel you must do something, is to praise your child when she doesn’t bite her nails at a time or during an activity that usually triggers the habit (such as while watching TV). If you pay attention to her for behaving the way you want, you’ll make more progress than if you focus on the negative.

What should I do if my child’s schoolmates tease her about biting her nails?

If your child is upset about being teased, she’s probably ready to stop biting her nails — and she’ll need your help. First, talk to her about the teasing, encouraging her to express how it made her feel. Reassure her that you love her no matter what her nails look like. You might also want to reassure yourself that it is just a nervous habit: Ask questions to explore any potential sources of stress in her life. It’s best to be sure that she’s not overly anxious about school or that her new ballet class isn’t making her miserable.

If you don’t uncover a source of unusual stress, begin a discussion of what nervous habits are and how it’s possible to break them. A good book to read together is Janet Munsil’s Where There’s Smoke, in which nail-biting Daisy and her cigarette-smoking dad try to break their habits together.

Encourage your child to become more aware of when and where she bites. Agree on a quiet, secret reminder for times when she forgets — a light touch on the arm or a code word. Suggest a substitute activity (Silly Putty for car rides, a smooth stone to hold while reading), let her choose one, and then practice the alternative habit with her for a few minutes before school or at bedtime.

Another tried-and-true motivator is a calendar. Make or buy one together, and get some cool stickers, which she can stick on every day she doesn’t bite.

Some children benefit from physical reminders that call their attention to the habit at the moment it occurs. If they make the choice to try one of these, they see it as helpful rather than punitive. Offer your child the option of keeping Band-Aids on her fingertips or colorful stickers on her nails, or offer to paint her nails with two layers of clear polish or nail strengthener, which will make biting more of a challenge. Drugstores also sell bite-averting solutions such as Thum, which are safe but taste bitter. Check the ingredients first, though. (Thum is made with cayenne pepper, so it’s appropriate only for kids who are old enough to remember not to rub their eyes; it also contains acetone, the smelly chemical in nail polish.)

Different children prefer different techniques, but in general the more your child feels like a partner in this endeavor, the more likely she will succeed — and the better chance you have of avoiding a power struggle.

Is my child’s nail biting a sign of excessive anxiety?

More likely, it’s a way of expressing the deeply felt but transient tensions of childhood. All children get anxious. Learning something new in school or feeling shy at a party or on the playground are common triggers. Nail biting that occurs primarily at times like this is probably your child’s way of coping with stress or comforting herself; if that’s the case, there’s nothing to worry about.

If you have an idea about what might be making your child anxious — a recent move, a divorce in the family, a new school, an upcoming piano recital complete with the grandparents who pay for the lessons — make a special effort to help her talk about her worries. Sometimes suggesting a patently ridiculous reason — “I know! You’re trying to sharpen your teeth!” — will prompt a child of this age to tell you the real reason.

Sometimes, though, severe nail biting does signal excessive anxiety. Consult your child’s doctor, teacher, or school nurse if your child is biting her nails so intently that her fingertips are sore or bloody; if her nail biting is accompanied by other worrisome behaviors, such picking her skin or pulling her eyelashes or hair out; or if her sleep patterns have altered considerably. If this is the case, then some counseling might be in order.

In most children, however, nail biting is simply a phase. In time your child will most likely move on to a different habit, giving you something new to worry about.

Further Resources

Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D, Sidney M. Baker, M.D., Child Behavior: The classic child care manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. HarperPerennial 1992.

References

Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D, Sidney M. Baker, M.D., Child Behavior: The classic child care manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. HarperPerennial 1992.

Robert H. Pantell M.D., James F. Fries M.D., Donald M. Vickery M.D., Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent’s Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care. Da Capo Press. 2005.

Nemours Foundation. Your Childs Habits. January 2005. http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/five_habits.html

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