Does your grandchild bite her nails? An estimated 20 to 25 percent of children are chronic nail-biters. My 10-year old granddaughter was one of them and two months ago she finally stopped the habit of nail-biting.
Your grandchild may bite his nails for any number of reasons – curiosity, boredom, stress relief, habit, or imitation. Nail-biting is the most common of the so-called “nervous habits,” which include thumb-sucking, nose picking, hair twisting or tugging, and teeth grinding. It’s also the one most likely to continue into adulthood.
Growing up can make kids anxious, and many of these tensions and pressures are invisible to parents. If your child bites moderately (doesn’t injure himself) and unconsciously (while watching television, for example), or if he tends to bite in response to specific situations (such as performances or tests), it’s just his way of coping with minor stress and you have nothing to worry about.
My granddaughter’s nail-biting habit was a way to relieve boredom. She’s a high-energy child who’s always moving. When she was younger, she loved to hang from ledges, or do handstands and cartwheels when we walked anywhere. Once we were in a shop and she did a handstand and almost knocked over a display.
She’s very athletic and spends lots of time jumping on her trampoline or swimming in her pool. But when she read a book, watched a movie or did her homework, she chewed on her nails and cuticles. She began biting her cuticles when she was eight. She said she’d see a hangnail and tear it off and then that led to tearing another until she’d bitten them all off.
How to Stop a Habit
She tried many things to stop the habit: applying a special bitter-tasting nail polish, wearing mittens, taping her fingers and even getting hypnotized. But nothing worked. A few months ago, I read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business which described a twenty-four-year old graduate student who bit her nails until they bled. The student worked with a counselor who specialized in “habit reversal training.”
He asked her what she felt right before she brought her hand up to her mouth to bite her nails. Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called “awareness training.” It’s the first step in habit reversal training. Then the therapist asked why she bit her nails and she said it was because she was bored. He gave her an assignment to carry around an index card, and every time she felt the cue to bite (for her it was tension in her fingertips,) she should make a check mark on the card.
She came back the following week with twenty-eight check marks and was acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit. Then the therapist taught the student a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. He told her to follow it with a quick physical stimulation — such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on her desk — anything that would produce a physical response.
A week later, the student had only bitten her nails three times. After a month, the nail-biting was gone and the competing routines had become automatic.
I told my granddaughter this story and I also gave her a Fidget Spinner. She practiced keeping a record every time she bit her nails and she also carried the fidget spinner everywhere she went. After two months of using the fidget spinner, she had stopped biting her nails. She is so proud of herself for overcoming her habit and pleased with her beautiful long nails.
What to Do About Nail-biting
- Address the child’s anxieties. Before you can do that, it’s essential you deal with the underlying causes of the behavior and think about whether there’s stress in your child’s life that you need to address.
- Don’t nag or punish. Unless your child really wants to stop biting his nails, you probably can’t do much about it. Like other nervous habits, nail-biting tends to be unconscious. If the habit really bothers you, set limits such as “no nail-biting at the dinner table.”
- Help her when she wants to stop. Reassure her that you love her no matter what her nails look like. Then move on to possible solutions.
- Help her become aware of the habit. Encourage your child to become more aware of when and where she bites. Agree on a quiet, secret reminder for times when she forgets – a light touch on the arm or a code word.
- Offer an alternative. Suggest a substitute activity or two. (Give Silly Putty to play with on long car rides, for instance, or a fidget spinner to hold while reading or watching television.) Have your child practice the alternative habit for a few minutes before school or at bedtime.
- Try and try again. Explain to your child that different people respond to different techniques, and encourage her to try a variety of solutions if the first one doesn’t work. In general, the older she is, the more responsibility she can take in this endeavor.
Remind your child and yourself that habits are hard to break. Take a break from trying if you need to, and make sure your child gets plenty of affection and attention no matter how successful she is in breaking her habit. Eventually your patience and persistence will pay off.
For more details on what to do about nail-biting, click on this link.