Nail Biting

So, your child bites his nails. (The technical term for the compulsion is onychophagia.) Don’t worry, there’s more than one way of weaning him out of the habit— and none of them involves chili peppers! If your child can’t seem to leave his nails alone, consider the following suggestions:

Start with Increasing Awareness
Nail-biters are rarely aware of what they are doing, until someone directs their attention to their action. So before you issue your child a reprimand, consider the possibility that he may just be acting out of instinct, and has no idea that nail-biting is an undesirable behavior.

If this is the case, then simply start by explaining that nail-biting is not a hygienic habit, and can cause germs to travel to the mouth (talk of tiny little worms is recommended at this point — which is not a lie! Some worms are microscopic, and may be found in the dirt under one’s fingernails). Explain to your child that you would like to help him avoid nail-biting as much as possible. More so, you would like him to stop immediately once he catches himself biting his nails. Putting the responsibility of managing behavior onto your child is a good beginning education in self-regulation.

(In the meantime, cut the child’s nails short so he or she won’t have much to bite!)

Ring the Bell on Nail-Biting
As mentioned, nail-biting can be an automatic behavior, often done outside of a person’s awareness. If you want to remove an automatic habit, you have to increase consciousness. You have to make the action as obtrusive as possible.

Bracelets with loud bangles can be used as a warning device for nail-biting. As the child raises her hand to bite her nails, she will be notified by the jingle of the bracelets. This may be enough to stop her mid-track.  A consequence when caught nail-biting, such as reciting a poem or song (the consequence need not be unpleasant; simply “obtrusive”) may also be implemented. It can be enough to break-up the automatic sequence in the brain. When the child is slowed down by any consequence following biting, the brain registers this slightly aversive activity and tries to avoid it by stopping the precursor – the nail biting itself.

Consider Nail-Biting as a Symptom of Stress or Tension
It’s possible that kids nail-bite to release tension or manage insecurity. If this is the case, the best thing to do is address the cause of their unease. Otherwise, other nervous habits might just replace nail-biting and you’ll be back at square one again.

So try to be observant. When do your kids nail bite? Where do they nail bite? What situations trigger the behavior? Which people seem to reinforce it? Gathering this information can help you discover sources of stress or tension in a child’s life. For kids, plain, old-fashioned boredom can trigger stress that triggers nail-biting. Nail-biting may also be a general self-soothing activity that follows conflict in the home, studying for exams, worrying about something or some other tension. Giving kids effective stress-release tools can diminish or stop the habit of biting. For instance, stress can be relieved by Bach Flower Therapy (see a practitioner or learn more about this harmless form of stress relief on-line), daily physical exercise, relaxation training (meditation or yoga for kids) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique). Some kids will benefit from professional counseling or specific therapies for breaking habits. A child specialist (art therapist, child psychologist or other mental health professional) can be very helpful.

Or Just Let it Be…
While nail-biting is a common habit among children, it’s not a serious one. It also tends to go away on its own, so no intervention may just be the intervention that you need. If the habit persists for several months, or if it’s so intense that it causes bleeding in the nails, then a physician or a child psychologist should be consulted. Keep in mind too, that some adults still bite their nails. Early intervention can prevent a lifelong habit.

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