If your kids bite their nails, they’re not alone. About 50% of 10 to 18 year olds bite their nails from time to time, and for many kids, the habit starts even younger.
It’s one of the most common “anxiety habits,” a category that also includes hair-picking, nose-picking, and thumb-sucking. Formally, it is characterized as a body-centered repetitive behavior. While some kids bite their nails because they’re nervous, others don’t know what else to do when they’re nervous. Nail biting can be self-soothing.
In addition to being uncomfortable to witness, nail biting can cause some damage to your child’s teeth and nails. So, if your child is particularly aggressive when they’re nibbling on their nails, it’s important to address the issue with your dentist.
For the most part, nail biting doesn’t cause any serious health problems — and it’s usually not a sign of a deeper problem. Instead, it’s just a little worrying habit that often drives parents crazy.
Strategies to stop
Since most kids eventually develop the habit of biting their nails, some parents find that it’s best to just ignore it. But for other parents, looking the other way is too hard to do.
If nail biting begins to be unusual, consider whether your child may be anxious or stressed. Remember that some positive events, such as being promoted to a new reading group or getting a new pet, can be stressful for kids.
If nail biting seems to be a bad habit, there are a few ways to help your child stop it:
- Daily nail clipping. Trimming your child’s nails reduces the surface area under the nail — and means less dirt, grime, and bacteria that can build up under the nail and get into their mouth. Take good care of the cuticle too; Bacteria can enter the skin around the nail and cause an infection. Keep a file or small nail clipper handy. Sometimes, a broken nail is simply too much for a child to resist.
- Find a replacement. Find something healthy that your child can put in his mouth. For an older child, it might be okay to snack on crunchy celery and carrots on a regular basis. Just make sure you don’t replace nail biting with sugary snacks, or you’ll end up switching from one bad habit to another.
- Give your child something else to focus on. Find something that helps your child’s fingers work. They may enjoy gently stroking a smooth anxiety stone that they can keep in their pocket, squeezing a small stress ball, or fiddling with Silly Putty. This allows them to focus on the texture and feel of what’s in their hands, rather than on the sound and sensation of biting their nails.
- Pick a subtle signal between the two of you. When you see your child gnawing, lightly tapping their arm or using a code word will alert them without notifying everyone else. This will help them become more aware of when they’re doing it — after all, a lot of these anxious habits are done subconsciously.
- Create a reward system. Chart out the stickers and mark the days when your child doesn’t bite his nails. If your child can’t study all day, you may need to break the day down into smaller chunks of time, such as “before breakfast” or “during dinner.” After they collect a specific number of stickers, give them a reward — like a trip to the park with five stickers.
- Order manicure. Your child may enjoy having his nails painted. Not only can it become bonding time between parents and children, but compliments on their nails can discourage biting habits.
- Try nail polish to prevent bites. These tastes are horrible or burn a little when your child bites his nails. (Be careful, though, as some contain acetone or cayenne pepper, which can be quite damaging if your child rubs his eyes.) Talk to your child’s doctor or pharmacist to learn about options. the safest. Bad taste will at least make your child more aware of this habit.
- Let the consequences be natural. Remember that natural consequences can be good teachers. So, if your child occasionally hurts his finger from biting his nails too short, the pain may prompt him to stop biting his nails in the future.
Avoid making the habit worse
Calling too much attention to your child’s bad habits can backfire and their nail biting could even get worse. Punishing your child or embarrassing her for biting her nails won’t help her change the habit either.
Help your child control nail biting, but don’t get so wrapped up that she stops. Yelling at them or telling them they’re “rude” won’t help.
Skip the lengthy lectures on all the reasons why putting your finger in your mouth is disgusting — that won’t work either.
Helping your kids stop biting their nails is much more effective if they stick to the plan. If they don’t have a particular incentive to quit, your efforts are unlikely to succeed. So be patient with them and if they don’t want to stop you may need to wait until they do.
Occasionally, you can discuss the topic by saying something like, “I notice you bite your nails a lot. Do the kids at school ever notice?” Mentioning that other people can see them doing this can make them a little more aware of how others perceive them.
Similarly, you could ask them, “It seems like sometimes your fingers hurt when you bite your nails too much. Ever wish you didn’t?”
If your child is invested in kicking the habit, put together a plan to help them. They may say that they want a specific reward if they can grow their nails long enough that you may have to cut them off (as opposed to chewing them away before they can grow).
Nail biting can sometimes get better and then get worse. It’s often part of the process of getting rid of bad habits. However, over time, your child’s nail biting behavior can decrease.
Bad habits are hard to break. If your child humbles himself for biting his nails, remind them that you are in this together. And before here friend So frustrated, remind yourself – this is probably just a phase.
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