Even though nail-biting is one of the first signs of anxiety in children, it can also occur for many other reasons. Your child may start biting his or her nails due to boredom, curiosity, imitation, habit and stress. So it’s important to get to the bottom of this bad habit before taking any action.
Nail-biting is one of the most common nervous habits in children and it’s also one of the habits that are likely to continue as the child grows up. But as soon as you realize what’s triggering this behavior, you can help your child overcome it and stop. In most cases, there is no need to worry too much since lots of children start biting their nails as a sign of minor stress and this can be easily treated but you need to figure out what is causing this stress.
Pay attention to when exactly the child is biting her nails. Does it happen while she’s watching the TV, or while she’s studying? Is she reading something or playing? Has she come back from kindergarten or school with this new habit? These could all be stressors causing the child to bite her nails. If your child has suddenly developed this habit, consider what changes may have happened in her life at the moment. Have you just moved? Has she got a new brother or a sister? Has she started taking some new courses at school or met some new friends? The most important first step is realizing what is causing nail-biting and working on addressing the problem.
So, here’s what you can do about it:
1. Address the stressor
Once you’ve realized what may be causing the stress, and therefore nail-biting, you should address it together with the child. Make sure your child feels safe and confident enough to share his or her problems with you so that you can fight them together. If the child is too small to talk about the anxiety, work on removing the stressor or getting the child to get used to it. For example, introduce the new pet slowly and patiently or make subtle play-dates between the new baby and your elder child. The key is to communicate all the time so that you know what is bothering your child.
2. Help the child become aware of the habit
In some cases, children won’t even be aware they are biting their nails, let alone know why they are doing it. So make sure to have a conversation with your child (if he or she is old enough) and make her realize she’s doing it and try to figure out why it’s happening. Once you do this, make an agreement on how you’re going to stop it together. It’s important to agree on the level of your involvement because you nagging or telling her to stop may only make the situation worse. If she wants help, create a secret reminder that will make her stop without embarrassing her.
3. Give alternatives
You won’t be able to be there at all times to remind your child to stop biting his nails – but you can offer some alternatives that will keep his hands occupied in situations when he’s likely to bite his nails. Depending on the age of the child, there are several things that you can offer such as a small ball, Play Doh or Silly Putty, or any kind of other small toy. If the child is older, he will take the object in his hands by himself whenever he feels the need to relieve the tension. And aside from offering a temporary fix like that, many children find playing an instrument relaxing.
4. Cover the nails up
If you have a girl, it will be easier treating this problem and helping the bad habit go away. You can help your daughter feel pretty by doing her nails and she will be less likely to bite her nails if she’s proud of her manicure. Not only will it stop her from biting her nails any further so she keeps her pretty manicure, she will also have a constant reminder whenever she looks at her hands that she shouldn’t do it. When it comes to the boys, you can help them by putting some colorful bandages on the fingertips. It is not an ideal solution since he will get asked about it at school, which can lead to embarrassment, but it may be a good solution for toddlers.
5. Use bitter solutions
This should be your last resort as bitter solutions are usually used by adults or adolescents who are ready and determined to quit. Forcing a child keep this solution on his fingers may feel like a punishment, which is the last thing you want. The child needs to go through the process painlessly and in agreement with you. Everything else will only lead to embarrassment, spite and discouragement. Furthermore, some of these solutions contain cayenne pepper which burns if it comes in contact with child’s mouth or eyes. But if you have an adolescent child who wants to quit biting his nails, you may suggest and try out this solution.
6. Be supportive
Finally, whatever you do, be supportive. Don’t nag or scold the child about it because it’s most likely she’s not doing it on purpose and she might not even realize she’s doing it. The best thing you can do is communicate with the child and try to solve the problem together. But if the child is unresponsive to that and still continues to bite her nails, you won’t succeed much by forcing anything. Make sure the child stays safe and that she’s not hurting herself and that’s really the only thing you can do. Only if you notice any other signs of anxiety, or if the nail-biting seriously intensifies, should you consider asking for professional help.