Your child may bite his nails for any number of reasons â curiosity, boredom, stress relief, habit, or imitation. Nail-biting is the most common of the so-called ânervous habits,â which include thumb-sucking, nose picking, hair twisting or tugging, and teeth grinding. Itâs also the one most likely to continue into adulthood.
Growing up can make kids anxious, and many of these tensions and pressures are invisible to parents. If your child bites moderately (doesnât injure himself) and unconsciously (while watching television, for example), or if he tends to bite in response to specific situations (such as performances or tests), itâs just his way of coping with minor stress and you have nothing to worry about.
In all likelihood, your child will eventually stop on his own, but if the nail-biting goes on longer than youâd like, or if itâs a habit you just canât abide, there are simple ways to help him quit.
Address her anxieties
Our initial response when children do something that worries us is to try to stop the behavior, and thatâs fine as a long-term goal. But before you can do that, itâs essential that you deal with the underlying causes of the behavior and think about whether thereâs stress in your childâs life that you need to address.
If you have an idea about what might be making your child anxious â a recent move, a divorce in the family, a new school, or an upcoming piano recital â make a special effort to help her talk about her worries.
This is easier said than done for most kids, of course, but suggesting a patently ridiculous reason for the nail-biting (âI know! Youâre trying to sharpen your teeth!â) may prompt her to tell you whatâs really bothering her.
Donât nag or punish. Unless your child really wants to stop biting his nails, you probably canât do much about it. Like other nervous habits, nail-biting tends to be unconscious.
If your child doesnât even know heâs doing it, nagging and punishing him are pretty useless strategies. Even adults have a terrible time breaking habits like this.
If the habit really bothers you, set limits. âNo nail-biting at the dinner tableâ is as reasonable a rule as âno feeding the dog from your plate.â
The most important thing is to keep whatâs basically a nuisance from escalating into a heated issue or becoming charged with emotion. Stifling your irritation for as long as you can and then snapping, âStop biting your nails! I canât stand it!â may turn out be the opening shot in a long and exhausting power struggle.
In general, as long as your childâs not hurting himself and doesnât seem overly stressed out, your best bet is to keep his fingernails neatly trimmed, remind him to wash his hands often, and try to keep your attention focused elsewhere. If you pressure him to stop, youâll just add to his stress and risk intensifying the behavior.
Moreover, any direct intervention on your part â such as painting nasty-tasting solutions on his fingernails â will feel like a punishment to him, whether you mean it that way or not. The less fuss he associates with the habit, the more likely he is to stop on his own when heâs ready, and the more likely he is to feel comfortable asking you for help.
Help her when she wants to stop. If your childâs friends are teasing her, she may be ready to stop â and sheâll need your help.
First, talk to her about the teasing and encourage her to tell you how it makes her feel. Reassure her that you love her no matter what her nails look like. Then move on to possible solutions.
Talk about breaking habits
Begin a discussion with your child about what nervous habits are and how itâs possible to break them. Next, decide how involved you should be in his plan to quit. Does he want you to remind him when he lapses, or will that irritate him? The older kids are, the less parental involvement they usually prefer.
Help her become aware of the habit. Encourage your child to become more aware of when and where she bites. Agree on a quiet, secret reminder for times when she forgets â a light touch on the arm or a code word.
Some kids benefit from physical reminders that call their attention to the habit the moment they do it. This option is helpful as long as your child is the one choosing to try it. If not, it will just seem punitive.