As you prepare to watch your child perform at the annual school play, tri-pod set up and camera aimed and ready to fire, you see your angel standing in the corner biting their nails till their bleed. No matter how many times you have whisked their hands from their mouth to keep the gnawing at bay, the reality is they are nail biters! While annoying to watch, nail biting is deemed an emotional disorder that often strikes the most intellectual of children. The medical term for nail biting is chronic oncophagia. It normally starts during childhood and can persist through adulthood. For parents, the interest lies with how to stop their child from biting their nails.
Before you can stop a child from biting their nails, you have to gain an understanding of why they are doing it in the first place. Obviously, nail biting can become worse when a child is under pressure for instance during tests or high-pressure moments; however, it can become so habitual that it gradually becomes constant. Many children bite their nails down to a pulp so to speak and experience bleeding and open sores that can rapidly lead to infection. This stereotypic movement disorder afflicts 1 out of every 3 children to some degree. At its worse, nail biting can be a sign of neurological, behavioral, or genetic predisposition. Freudian theory describes it as an oral fixation while you, probably feel that it is just part of sensitivity to stress.
Children who have a nail biting disorder (in other words its more than a habit) usually have additional behavioral problems to coincide with nail biting. They may be over active or hyper. They also may have problems sleeping and difficulty in balancing their emotions. What can be confusing is that behavioral disorders normally lead to an increase in parental pressures (discipline) and many parents feel that they are being too hard on their child which leads to the nail biting. This is an inaccurate statement. In fact, even with research there are no specific and accurate diagnoses for nail biting. It is up to you to decide whether your child is biting their nails because they are simply nervous, or because they have another emotional or psychological problem going on.
First, start to realize the extent of your child’s nail biting. Do they do it all the time or is it just when they are under pressure? Does your child commonly bite their nails at home or when they are school? Does your child seem to bite their nails more now than before, or have they always been prone to chewing on things in their life? If the nail biting is sudden onset, as a parent you must try to see underlying stress factors that may be going in their life. Often children who are experiencing family problems or big changes in their life will begin to suddenly bite their nails. If the problem is new talking to your child to try and see what is causing them stress is the best place to start. You can explain to them that often kids who bite their nails are upset about something and affirm that they can share all of their troubles with you. While you may not get the exact answer you are looking for, you may be able to help them orate their feelings and get to the bottom of the scenario. At the same time, you shouldn’t over emphasize their stress as most kids learn to capitalize on this very quickly.
The second step is to talk to them about nail biting. One way to stop a child from biting their nails especially older child, can be to have a frank conversation about the uncleanliness of the habit. Explaining to them how easily nail biting can spread germs and that they need to keep their fingers out of their mouth so they won’t get sick. Obviously, you don’t want to shame them for the habit or scare them.
The best way to get rid of any habit that your child (or you) has is to replace it. Habits become so ingrained in our day-to-day routine that most often we rarely have to think about it. Nail biting is one of those habits that become completely automatic and many children may not realize they are doing it. By pointing out to them when they bite their nails and asking them what they are feeling in that moment, you can heighten their awareness. Biofeedback is often the best way to deal with nail biting and can be effective in just a few weeks if parents become actively persistent. Part of biofeedback is not only to point out the nail biting, but also to give them something to replace the habit with. Perhaps a piece of gum if they are old enough. The goal is to give them tricks that empower them to overcome nail biting on their own, so that when they are not with you they have the tools. For instance if your toddler is a nail biter upon seeing them bite their nails, point out the activity and then try to busy their hands with crayons or paints.
There are of course some old tried ways to stop your child from biting their nails. Back in the day, parents would soak the fingers in mustard or some other concoction to keep them from tasting good. It is advised NOT to try these today. While the nail biting will definitely begin to be associated with something distasteful it will feel more like punishment to your child. For some little girls painting their nails or taking them to have their nails done will be all it takes to break the habit of nail biting. Another idea may be to place a bright r decorative bracelet that makes noise around their wrist. Explain that the tool is a reminder of when they are biting their nails so they can remember to stop. Remember most kids don’t even know they are doing it.
Pediatricians also recommend that you keep your child’s fingernails cut short and cleanly so that they will not have anything to bite. Don’t cut them to the wick, but if they nails grow many children will constantly bite and pull the nails and skin until they are red and inflamed. If they have little to start with, the habit may not get started.
The bottom line is that nail biting is most often a nervous habit. If your child is a nail biter it may be that they will need some help learning coping skills and strategies to deal with stress. If the nail biting becomes too severe or widespread, you need to consult your pediatrician to make sure that there are no psychological conditions underlying. The good news is that by the time your child is in their teens most, stop biting their nails! While there are certainly adults who bite their nails, the larger part of society learns to deal with this bothersome habit and put it behind them.