Nail-biting – onychophagia in medical parlance – is a common habit among children, one many of us may remember from our own childhood. It’s another matter when you see your child chewing on their nails, though! If your child’s nail-biting habit is stressing you out, here’s what you can do to get them to stop.
Children And Nail-biting
Nail-biting involves chewing on the cuticles and the soft tissue around the nails.1
For most parents, nail-biting is right up there with other “bad habits” like nose-picking, thumb-sucking, tooth-grinding, or hair-pulling – all repetitive, stress-relieving behaviors involving the body. But in most cases, nail-biting is not a serious issue. Nearly half of all kids between ages 10 and 18 will engage in nail-biting at some point. The habit generally starts after the age of 3 or 4, peaks around puberty, and the frequency slowly decreases around 18. Some teens, however, continue nail-biting as young adults.
Statistically, nail-biting is common among 20–33 percent of children and about 45 percent of teenagers. Studies about nail-biting among adults are rare and there is almost no information, statistical or otherwise, about it.2
Why Children Bite Their Nails
Nail-biting as a habit is a bit of a mystery. In fact, it’s still an unsolved problem in medicine and dentistry. There are several theories about why children bite their nails. Some reasons are:
- Transference of a thumb-sucking habit from childhood
- Stress and anxiety
- Boredom (they have nothing to do with those hands!) and inactivity
- Copying the habit from family members or friends at school
- If parents don’t trim their children’s nails regularly, kids may do so themselves – by biting off their nails!3 4
In a study involving 40 undergraduate students who admittedly had a nail-biting problem, it was found that the two leading causes for the habit were boredom and frustration while working on difficult academic problems. They did not bite their nails when they were socially active.5
How To Stop Your Children From Biting Their Nails
Unfortunately, there’s no easy-peasy remedy that will instantly stop your kids from biting their nails. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult habits to break. But here are a few tried and tested methods that usually work – with large doses of love and patience!
1. Don’t Punish, Engage
Don’t punish, scold, or shame your child. That could backfire and aggravate the habit. Instead, talk to her and help her figure out why she’s biting her nails. Helping your child identify the trigger for this behavior and making her part of the plan to stop nail-biting goes a long way to resolving the problem.
If the child is old enough to understand, you could motivate the child to break the habit by pointing out the disadvantages of nail-biting such as unsightly fingers and social disapproval.6 You could even come up with ways to break the habit together!
2. Identify The Trigger
Nail-biting could be a coping mechanism for stress at school. Is the habit new? Is it associated with any other triggers like hunger or boredom? Trying to find the root cause can help you deal with that first. Also talk to your child’s teacher or other caregivers to identify a possible cause or pattern.7
3. Distract Young Children
Smaller children can be gently distracted from nail-biting – think carrot sticks or some other healthy snack. You could also introduce a new toy or suggest an activity the child enjoys when you see them going at their nails.
4. Help Older Kids Help Themselves
Older children may be unhappy with their nail-biting habit and want to overcome it themselves. Consider getting them gloves as a preventive measure or a stress ball to keep their hands busy. Some older kids (or teens) may want to apply a bitter flavored polish to deter themselves from chewing on their nails.8
5. Try Habit Reversal Techniques
Habit reversal is a clinical treatment procedure used to treat repetitive behavior problems such as nail biting. This works with older children who can understand why they are practicing it and recognize what triggers their nail-biting episodes. One technique is to do something such as holding her arms straight down and making a fist with her hands as soon as she has the urge to bite her nails. Tapping on a hard surface with the finger nails is another technique. Important people in the child’s life needs to be made aware of the method so that they can help the child when needed. Habit reversal has been found to be quite successful in treating many other repetitive behavior problems.9
6. Keep Records
After a child has been motivated to help herself, she could be encouraged to keep records. Children 8 or older could keep records in terms of what happened before the nail-biting and also the frequency of nail-biting. Knowing if she bites her nails while watching TV or doing something else such as solving academic problems could help the child gain some control over the habit. Parents could do the same for younger children. Setting goals for improvement would be the next step followed by either tangible rewards or intangible ones such as praise.10
7. Practice Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is arguably the best way to stop children from biting their nails, even if it doesn’t yield quick results.
- If your pre-teen succeeds even briefly at restraining herself from nail-biting, praise her effort and reward her with a salon manicure.11
- Try this simple positive reinforcement exercise with a smaller child: Watch out for a moment when he doesn’t have his finger in his mouth. Then, simply describe what he’s doing with his hands. For instance, “That’s an interesting picture you’re drawing.” Or, “Doggie loves it when you scratch behind his ears with your fingers!”12
8. Use Bitter Gourd Juice!
A traditional Indian method to stop kids from nail-biting is to apply bitter gourd juice on their fingers while they are asleep. The bitterness is thought to deter even the most persistent of nail-biters!13
What Could Go Wrong If The Habit Persists
Without getting overly worried over your child’s nail-biting habit, there are some dental and medical problems that you should watch out for.
Other than the obvious cosmetic problems, severe nail-biting could infect and damage the skin. These are possibilities:
- Chronic paronchyia, a bacterial infection that involves inflammation of the skin around a finger
- Subungual infection, a condition during which blood collects under the fingernail causing a lot of pain
- Onychomycosis, a fungal infection of the nails
- Onycholysis, damage to the nail bed14
Children can also contract other infections from touching things around them and then putting their fingers into their mouth.15
If nail-biting persists for several years, it could lead to damage and hinder normal nail development.
It could also lead to dental problems.
- Continuous nail-biting creates mechanical forces that could lead to misalignment of teeth, dental crowding, and rotations.
- Onychophagia could also cause temporomandibular dysfunction or problems with the chewing muscles, and the joints between the base of the skull and the lower jaw.16
In rare instances, nail-biting may be a sign of a deeper problem like obsessive-compulsive disorder which requires treatment with medication.17
|↑2, ↑14, ↑16||Marouane, O., M. Ghorbel, M. Nahdi, A. Necibi, and N. Douki. “New Approach to Managing Onychophagia.” Case reports in dentistry 2016 (2016).|
|↑3, ↑11||Children and habits. NT.GOV.AU.|
|↑4, ↑8, ↑15||How Can I Get My Child To Stop Biting Her Nails. University of Utah.|
|↑5||Williams, Tim Ivor, Rebecca Rose, and Sarah Chisholm. “What is the function of nail biting: an analog assessment study.” Behaviour research and therapy 45, no. 5 (2007): 989-995.|
|↑6||Schaefer, Charles. and Millman, Howard L. How to Help Children with Common Problems. Jason Aronson, Incorporated, 1994.|
|↑7||Nail Biting. Nemours Foundation.|
|↑9, ↑10||Ollendick, Thomas H. and Schroeder, Carolyn S. Encyclopedia of Clinical Child and Pediatric Psychology. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.|
|↑12||Bad Habits. Michigan Medicine.|
|↑13||8 Tips To Stop Nail-Biting In Children. Onlymyhealth.|
|↑17||Nail-biting “Nail-Biting”). My Health.Alberta.ca.|