Nail biting is a nervous habit much like hair twisting, thumb sucking and tooth grinding. Growing up can be an anxious process. About a third of grade-school aged children bite their nails and between a quarter and a third of college students admit to still gnawing on theirs. So if the behavior persists through childhood, it is likely to become a substantial problem.
A lot of children bite their nails moderately, either unconsciously while watching a television show or before a major event such as a performance or test, as a way to cope with minor stress. If the nail biting is causing problems with their health such as bleeding fingers and infections the problem needs to be addressed. Also if you simply cannot stand to see nail biting, consider the following ways to help your child quit the habit.
Address anxieties - A lot of the stress that plagues a grade school child is invisible to adults. Make it a point to ask what your child is thinking about, what worries she may have. Sometimes the problem is clear; your family just moved to a new neighborhood, there is an important game coming up or a big test. Even if you think you know, make room for your child to talk out her feelings.
Loosen up - Yelling at your child to stop will not work. This habit is usually done in response to stress in your child's life, adding more stress will not help. Many times your child is not even aware they are biting their nails at first. If you want to draw attention to unconscious nail biting, consider saying something silly like, "Are you trying to sharpen your teeth?"
Be sympathetic - Breaking habits of any kind is difficult, for people of all ages. Just say no to power struggles, but you can help change the situation by keeping fingernails trimmed and neat. Harsher treatments like nasty solutions painted on fingernails could feel like a punishment and make it even harder to stop.
Support efforts to stop - Read the book, Where There's Smoke, by Janet Munsil with your child. The story outlines how nail-biting Daisy and her cigarette smoking dad try to break their bad habits together. Find out how involved your child wants you to be in their effort.
- Reminders. Some children need a gentle reminder to draw attention to the habit. You can touch their arm, or whisper a code word when you see them biting their nails for example.
- Colorful helps. Other children may want to wrap their nails with colorful bandages or place stickers on their nails. My daughter started painting her nails neon colors to help her remember to keep them out of her mouth. Now she is nail art pro and often paints designs on her friend's nails too.
- Alternatives. If your child is overwhelmingly anxious, try to find an alternative to biting. Teach them deep breathing techniques to calm them down, or let them play with Silly Putty or hold a smooth stone or stress ball when studying or watching television.
All along continue to remind yourself that habits are hard to break. Be patient and caring throughout the potentially long process and eventually persistence will pay off.
No excuses: Help children learn to live beyond labels