Do you know why your child is biting their nails? While nail biting doesn’t sound serious, it can be the cause of friction between parents and children in the quest to break the habit. We look at the reasons why, as well as some tried and tested strategies on how to stop.
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There are lots of reasons that your child might bite their nails: boredom, stress relief, curiosity or simply copying a sibling or parent. Professionals term nail biting as one of the very common “nervous habits”. Other children might display other behaviours instead such as sucking their thumb, grinding teeth, picking their nose or twisting or pulling hair – or even a combination of these.
As a parent these habits can be worrying, as well as irritating and embarrassing. But it is important to remember that there are lots of reasons that are invisible to parents that kids might feel anxious.
If nail biting has started out of the blue, you might want to think about whether your child might be undergoing a bit of anxiety or stress. But if your child bites their nails unconsciously, while watching television, for example, or if they tend to bite them in response to specific situations, it’s most likely just their way of coping with minor or passing stresses and you have nothing to worry about.
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How to Break the Nail Biting Habit
Since most children eventually outgrow nail biting, some parents find the best approach is to simply ignore it. But, for other parents, looking the other way can be just too hard to do. So here are a few ways to work with your child to discourage the behaviour:
Begin a discussion with your child about what nervous habits are and how it’s possible to break them. If you have an idea about what might be making your child anxious – a recent move, a divorce in the family, a new school, a test – make a special effort to help them talk about their worries. This is easier said than done for most kids, of course!
If your child’s friends are teasing them, they may be more than ready to stop with your help. Reassure them, then move on to possible solutions and how much involvement they want from you.
Don’t nag or get angry
Like other nervous habits, nail biting tends to be unconscious. Unless your child really wants to stop biting their nails, you probably can’t do much about it. If your child doesn’t even know he’s doing it, adding fire to the situation is a pretty useless strategy. The most important thing is to keep it from escalating into a power struggle.
If you pressure your child to stop, you’ll just add to his stress and risk intensifying the behaviour. The less fuss you can associate with the habit, the more likely they are to feel comfortable asking you for help.
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Effective Nail Biting Solutions
Cutting your child’s nails decreases the surface area under the nails – which means less dirt and bacteria if/when they bite their nails. Take good care of the cuticles too, as torn cuticles and broken skin can lead to bacteria being introduced. Worst case, this can cause a nasty infection.
If your child is old enough, teach him how to use an emery board and keep one handy to avoid those sharp edges that make biting more of a temptation.
Why not offer a manicure? This doesn’t have to be at a salon, it can be a home ‘spa’ session. There may be less inclination to bite when there is a fun colour polish on, or it may be a great motivational tool once the nails have grown a bit. Not only can it become an opportunity for bonding time, but the compliments they will get might discourage the bad habit.
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Give your child something else to focus on
Find something else that will keep your child’s fingers active. Silly Putty, fidget toy or blue tac to play with, sensory bottles, or a worry stone which can allow them to focus on the texture and feel of what’s in their hands, rather than focusing on the sound and feel of biting nails.
You can also look at some relaxation and calming techniques to try when they feel the urge to bite their nails – deep breathing, for example, or clenching and releasing their fists. If this doesn’t work you can try to look for something safe and healthy your child may be able to put into his mouth like ‘chewies’, fidget toys that can be chewed.
Make sure they have plenty of opportunity to burn off any tensions and nervous energy with physical activities likes sports for older children or plenty of outside play for younger ones. Some children find arts and crafts activities or learning a musical instrument a good way to keep their hands busy and relax at the same time.
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Pick a subtle signal
Encourage your child to become more aware of when and where they bite. When you see them nibbling, lightly touch them on the arm or use a code word that will alert them without announcing it to everyone else.
Some kids really 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 and deciding the trigger. If not, it will just seem like a punishment.
Create a reward system
For younger children you might want to set up a sticker chart and mark off every day that your child doesn’t bite his nails. If your child can’t make it a whole day, you may need to break the day down into smaller chunks of time, like “before breakfast”, “in the car” or “during dinner.” Once they collect a specific amount of stickers give him a reward that you have agreed together.
Try bite-averting nail polish
For older children, you may want to try a bite-averting nail polish that tastes terrible when they bite. Talk to your child’s GP or a pharmacist to learn about the safest options for your child at their age.
Allow for natural consequences
Keep in mind that natural consequences can be good teachers. So if your child occasionally causes his fingers to become sore from biting his nails too short, the pain may motivate him to stop biting his nails in the future.
Explain at an age appropriate level to your child that different people respond to different techniques, and encourage them to try a variety of solutions if the first one doesn’t work.
Remind them, and also calm yourself, by telling them that habits are hard to break and that the two of you are on the same side. Eventually your patience and persistence will pay off.
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When to Worry About Nail Biting
In rare cases, severe nail biting can be a sign of excessive anxiety that needs to be addressed. Consult your child’s doctor if nail biting makes their fingertips sore or bloody, on a regular basis.
You may also see nail biting in combination with other behaviours, such as scratching their skin or pulling out eyelashes or hair, or if they are not sleeping. Also consult the doctor if your child’s nail biting habit surfaced suddenly and escalated quickly.
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Have your say! Is nail biting an issue in your house? What have you found to be the most effective solution? Leave a comment below and let us know – we’d love to hear from you!