Nail Biting: Stop it Before it’s too Late

Have you been noticing that your child spends a lot of time with his fingers in his mouth? Is your daughter constantly chewing on her nails? If so, then your child may be suffering from a very common childhood habit – nail biting! Many children develop a habit of nail biting and, though typically harmless, severe nail biting can sometimes lead to potential health complications. However, constant nail biting could be a symptom of a physical or emotional problem.

What is a Habit?
Everyone has a habit that plagues them on a daily basis. And whether its knuckle cracking or skin picking, habits can be very difficult to break. Habits are defined as behavior patterns that are repeated again and again. Some of us are aware of these habits, while others find that they don’t even notice when they are engaging in habitual behavior. One thing is for sure though – habits are generally noticed by everyone around you!

Habitual behavior is very common in young children. In particular, children often participate in habitual:

These habits often occur together; for instance, your daughter may bite her nails while twirling her hair.

How Common is Nail Biting?
Nail biting is by far one of the most common childhood habits., affecting between 30% and 60% of children. Nail biting is most common between the ages of 5 and 10, although some children can begin to bite their nails as early as age three. By adolescence, the incidence of nail biting drops to about 20%, but 10% of these nail biters will continue with their habit for the rest of their lives. Before the age of 10, girls and boys are equally affected by nail biting. However, after age 10, boys are more commonly affected.

What Causes Nail Biting?
Unfortunately, the causes of nail biting, and habits in general, are difficult to pin down - every child has a different reason for engaging in compulsive nail biting. Common reasons include:

  • Boredom: If your child doesn’t have anything to do with his time, he may resort to nail biting.
  • Anxiety: Nail biting and other habits often serve to soothe children, helping to release their anxiety and stress.
  • Mirroring: If you chew your nails, your child may pick up on this behavior, and begin to bite his own nails.
  • Attention: Children often engage in habits in order to get attention from those around them. For instance, if your child knows that she will get a reaction from your if she bites her nails, she may continuously bite them.

Complications of Nail Biting
If your child just bites the tops of his nails off, than there is generally no real health concern associated with his nail biting. However, aggressive child nail biting can lead to a number of health problems, which makes it important to break the habit as soon as possible. Continued nail biting and picking can lead to:

  • bleeding
  • nail infections
  • skin infections
  • damaged cuticles
  • warts on the base of the nail
  • permanently deformed nails

If you notice redness, swelling, or bumps on your child’s nails, it may be a sign of infection caused by nail biting.

When it’s More than Just a Habit
Sometimes, nail biting can become very serious, and you may notice your child spending hours biting her nails everyday. This is definitely a signal that your child’s nail biting is more than just a habit. Sometimes, children can develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors, due to phsycological or emotional concerns. If your child’s nail biting is interfering with her schoolwork, socialization, or other daily activities, consult your health care provider.

What Can You Do? How To Stop Nail Biting
Habits are difficult for adults to break, let alone children. So it is important for you and your child to work together when it comes to stopping nail biting. Here are some tips to keep in mind when it comes to beating that nail biting habit:

  • Work Together: It’s no use trying to break the nail biting habit if your child’s heart isn’t in it. Explain to your child why nail biting is inappropriate, and allow her to choose methods to try to quit.
  • Don’t Scold: Scolding, yelling, and arguing will not serve to help your child break the nail biting habit. Instead, it may actually make the habit worse.
  • Suggest a Substitute: Many children enjoy having an oral occupation, as it is soothing and comforting. Suggest that your child suck on a sugar-free lollipop, or chew sugar-free gum instead of nail biting.
  • Offer Incentives: Incentives are a great way to get your child to break the nail biting habit. Offer stickers to your child on days when he doesn’t bite his nails. Or promise to take your child for a manicure or to an amusement park for sticking to her goals.
  • Try Oral Deterrents: If your child is struggling with nail biting, ask him if he thinks oral deterrents might help. Get your child to wear gloves or put bandages over her nails to help her stop. Never force your child to use these deterrents, however.