Morrisville mom, Kerry McCarthy, isn’t worried about her son’s nail-biting habit — and neither is his pediatrician. Ryan, now 14, has been biting his nails since he was 6. “My pediatrician always said ‘It’s a phase; he’ll grow out of it.’ Perhaps, someday, he will,” McCarthy says.
Watching a child biting his nails can be very stressful for parents. In addition to the unpleasant aesthetics of chewed cuticles, there are bleeding nail beds and infections to worry about.
Some experts believe that nail biting, like thumb sucking, is a soothing habit kids grow out of, and they caution parents that too much attention may actually magnify the problem. Others feel that the best approach is to break the habit before it becomes ingrained. Whether you believe in waiting it out or wearing it down, it’s important to make the child —not the habit — the focus of your energies.
Many topical solutions aren’t solutions.
McCarthy wasn’t always so Zen about Ryan’s nail-biting habit. “When he was younger, I went out and purchased the No Bite nail polish product and kept his nails painted with the bitter tasting polish. When that stopped being effective, I would put band-aids on his fingertips,” she recalls.
Topical solutions are a common strategy for parents who want to put an end to nail-biting and thumb-sucking. These substances coat the fingertips with a bitter or extremely unpleasant-tasting substance that discourages the child’s unwanted habit. Bitter tasting polishes, cayenne pepper and red pepper have all been used in this way. This approach can work with older children, but the noxious liquids should be avoided with younger children since they can easily be transferred to the eyes and other sensitive body parts with a mistimed hand swipe.
Distraction techniques can work.
McCarthy noticed that Ryan stopped biting his nails when he began playing a musical instrument. The diversion of his fingers creating music and the pain that was created when gnawed fingers attempted to play deterred Ryan from biting his nails. Playing music also allowed Ryan to refocus his energy away from his bad habit.
This is a great strategy for parents. Hobbies that require using the hands — playing a musical instrument, reading, knitting and gardening — are great for breaking this habit. However, beware of hobbies that allow for idle time (TV viewing, web surfing) and those that create stress (games like chess); they can intensify the need for self-soothing through nail biting.
It helps to understand the triggers.
Like many unwanted habits, nail biting often occurs in association with a certain feeling or state of being. Does you child bite his nails when he is bored, anxious or angry? Understanding the root cause of the behavior may help find ways to address it. Ryan’s nail biting, for example, occurred when he started school and pressured himself to achieve. “As a firstborn child, he tends to seek perfection in everything he does,” explains McCarthy. “And with such perfection seems to come an element of stress. The more he stresses, the more he bites down his nails. Achieving the status of a straight-A student for his entire school experience has been his proudest accomplishment yet. But it has come at the price of decent nails.”
Offer plenty of praise and appropriate rewards.
If you and your child are actively trying to break the biting habit, be sure to offer praise for good efforts and rewards when goals are reached. Set specific and reasonable goals based on the child’s age. For example, younger children respond well to frequent, small rewards; older kids are motivated by substantial, long-term rewards like books, movie outings, extended curfews, and chore-free days. (Experts discourage parents from using food as a reward.)
Consider letting them stop on their own.
With many kids, it’s best not to press the issue; let them give up nail-biting when they’re ready. For girls, the opportunity to wear pretty polishes can create an incentive for breaking this habit; for boys and girls, peer pressure and the desire to seem attractive to the opposite sex as they approach adolescence is a reason to quit. If you plan on letting your child outgrow the habit at his or her own pace, encourage frequent hand-washing to reduce the risk of infection.
Ask for help if you’re worried.
If you regularly see your child’s hands bleeding due to nail or cuticle biting or if these behaviors are accompanied by other compulsive behaviors (hair pulling, skin picking), it’s wise to bring these symptoms to the attention of your child’s pediatrician. Although uncommon, these behaviors have been linked to anxiety and can indicate a risk factor for eating disorders. Severe forms of these behaviors may require medical intervention.
Create a supportive environment.
Nail biting, like many bad habits, isn’t easy to stop. Enlist the help of other family members in the form of encouraging words and support. And ask them to avoid criticism and to refrain from putting a negative spin on what you and your child are trying to accomplish. Grandparents and other relatives might be able to share stories of family members who successfully managed to quit.
McCarthy found support from her own mother. “My mom (Ryan’s grandmother) said all of my brothers did the same thing when they were his age,” she says. Knowing that the behavior was common among his now grown uncles who no longer bite their nails now is great encouragement for Ryan and his mother.