Q: My six-year-old daughter started biting her nails around the same time she started school for the first time last September. She’s a happy girl and is enjoying school, but I reckon the change in her life is what triggered her to start. She bites her nails right to the quick and also bites the skin around them. She bites them so badly that they sometimes bleed. I’ve tried painting them with that nasty-tasting stuff, but that doesn’t stop her. When I see her biting them I find myself giving out to her and telling her to stop. It’s really upsetting to see my daughter biting her nails so badly, and no matter what my husband and I try, she won’t stop. Should I be ignoring her behaviour and hoping that she’ll just grow out of it?
A: Nail-biting is the most common of the many physical habits that children engage in; others are hair-pulling, hand-rubbing, nose-picking, scratching, twitching, teeth-grinding or grimacing. Sometimes, these habits are triggered or aggravated by stress or anxiety, though sometimes they are simply habitual ways children distract themselves or relieve tension. Everyone, including adults, has some variation of these physical habits (although if you are lucky yours are mild and don’t draw attention to you).
Most of the time these habits are largely subconscious, meaning that much of the time children are unaware they are doing them and like all habits they are not immediately in their control and can be hard to stop.
The extent of the problem depends largely on the severity of the habit and whether it interferes with the child’s life either by being antisocial or causing harm, as in the case of your daughter’s nail-biting, which is causing bleeding.
It is understandably distressing to witness your daughter engaging in severe nail-biting and frustrating that she won’t stop but, as you have discovered, getting angry or giving out is not going to help as the habits are largely subconscious. It will only make her feel worse about the problem and has the potential to drive a wedge between you.
Helping your daughter stop her nail biting
The first thing to do is to get your daughter to want to stop the habit herself. Sit down and talk to her gently and sympathetically. How does she feel about her nail-biting? How does it affect her? Would she like to stop?
Once she has made a decision to stop by herself then you can look at ways you can help her. By taking time to get her agreement this means that you are no longer nagging or punishing her about her nail-biting and instead you are her supporter and coach as she overcomes the problems.
Help your child become aware of when she bites her nails
Help your child become aware of and notice the triggers when she bites her nails. It could be at certain times when she is preoccupied with something else such as watching TV or reading books, or it could be when she is stressed about something. At these times help your daughter talk about what is going on and think of strategies she can employ to divert herself.
Address the stresses your daughter may be under
If some of her nail-biting is related to stress, try to address the underlying issues. For example, if she is finding it hard to make friends in school, you could arrange some one-to-one playdates at home or talk to the teacher about helping her mix in the classroom.
Use gentle and positive reminders
Some children might need a gentle reminder to divert the habit once they start. Rather than nagging or giving out at these times, have a gentle and non-embarrassing reminder word such as saying “hands” and not making a big deal, or else agree with her a fun code word such as “teddy bear” that you say to remind her to stop.
Sometimes nonverbal reminders work best, try tapping your knuckle – and smiling – or stroking the back of her hand gently if you see her about to bite.
Teach your child an alternative habit
Probably the best tactic is to teach her an alternative habit she can use to stop her nail-biting at risky times. For example, if she bites her nails when reading or in the car you can give her a stress ball to hold and squeeze, or a smooth stone to rub.
Alternatively, if she bites when stressed you can show her how to put her hands on her lap or tummy and take three slow breaths, instead of biting. Teaching these new habits takes time and patience.
Have an encouraging rewards system
Be encouraging as your daughter overcomes her habit and acknowledge how much effort she makes. Small goals and rewards systems such as a star for not biting and using her new habits for the afternoon, a treat for getting through a car journey, can really help.
The key is to make these goals manageable and achievable. For example, if she is a very frequent biter you might set a goal of managing for an hour or even 20 minutes so she can gain her first star and be on the road to overcoming the habit.
Use physical barriers
Sometimes physical barriers or reminders can help such as colourful plasters that protect her fingers or a nail polish like you have used. But try to use these with her agreement, as one of the many strategies you are employing.
Read books about solving the problem with her
There are some great books on overcoming nail biting that are very child-centred such as What to Do When Bad Habits Take Hold: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Nail Biting and More by Dawn Huebnerand and Bonnie Matthews. Sit down and read this through with her, completing the worksheets and exercises over time. Try to make it a fun project you are working on together.
Seek further help if needed
If the problem persists, do seek further help from a child mental health professional or your GP.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, May 2015. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.