Getting a kid to break a habit that many adults have a tough time breaking isn’t easy. Nail biting is one of those habits. But it can be done!
Young children might bite their nails for a lot of reasons.
“Nail biting often starts when they might be bored, stressed, or anxious and seeking a way to soothe themselves,” says Lisa Richards, MSN, certified nurse midwife and the health coach coordinator at Ovia. “Then it can sometimes become a habit that they engage in regularly, even when not feeling those emotions.”
Nail biting behaviors can really vary.
“Some toddlers or preschoolers bite their nails, but it’s most common in adolescents and teens,” says Richards. “Although it may last several years (especially if untreated), almost all nail-biters grow out of the habit by early adulthood. If it’s happening along with other repetitive behaviors that seem hard for your child to control, it could sometimes be a sign of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but that’s generally rare.”
In most cases, nail biting doesn’t cause problems, but it’s possible that it could.
Red, sore fingertips with cracked or bleeding cuticles can be common according to Richards, but when the skin is broken, there’s a risk of infection. “If kids are chewing on dirty fingernails, it might also increase their germ exposure. Very rarely, ongoing nail biting could lead to deformations in the way that a child’s nails grow.”
So how do we break this habit?
Keep nails trimmed and filed.
“Shorter nails generally invite less nail-biting than longer nails and once a child has been biting nails and gets used to that feeling of very short nails, they may prefer them that way,” says Richards. “So keeping nails trimmed prevents biting that’s functioning as a ‘self-trimming’ behavior.”
Try to identify the source.
“If a child is bored, other methods of stimulation might be helpful, like hand-held fidget toys when appropriate,” says Richards. “If a child is stressed or anxious, working on emotional regulation techniques or seeing a therapist might help to resolve that underlying issue.”
Paint a (non-toxic) bitter solution on the nails.
“There are several commercially available products that can be painted on like a clear nail polish and the bitter taste often quickly discourages continued biting,” says Richards.
Give a prize.
“For older children, deciding on a long-term incentive or prize that they’ll win when they’re able to get the habit under control can sometimes be helpful,” says Richards. “Punishing and shaming the child doesn’t help, and if the biting is routed in stress or anxiety, then punishments or shaming might make the behavior worse.”