Nail-biting is a common and frustrating habit for many children, teens and parents. Roughly half of all children bite their nails, and it is more common in boys than girls after the age of 10. But, there is good news! More than 75 percent of teens who bite their nails will stop by age 35.
Why do kids bite their nails?
- Their nails might not be well-trimmed.
- They see other people do it.
- To give their brain some extra stimulation.
- To cope with stress or anxiety.
There are a few things parents can do to help combat nail-biting which include both general prevention as well as habit-reversal.
General Prevention Strategies
- Keep your child’s nails well-trimmed. Nail decorating may prevent biting if it fits within your family’s culture and values.
- If nail biting is a habit for you, stop biting your own nails first or at the same time as your child (making it a competition may make it more motivating and fun).
- Teach your child effective ways to manage stress like taking deep slow breaths, squeezing their muscles tightly and slowly relaxing them, as well as doing mindfulness activities.
- Keep your child and their hands busy.
Habit Reversal Training (HRT)
HRT is a research-based approach to treating all kinds of habits, including nail biting.
HRT Step 1: Increase your child’s awareness of biting their nails
Use a code word: Saying “stop” or “knock it off” can increase stress for you and your child which might actually make nail biting worse! Instead, come up with a code word or secret sign (e.g., tugging your ear) to let your child know when they are biting. Your child can also share this word or sign with friends, teachers, coaches, etc.
Put something on their nails: You can use bandages, gloves or bitter nail polish. Note that these strategies are designed to help your child realize they are biting their nails, not stop them from doing it.
HRT Step 2: Replacement behavior – have them do something else with their hands
- Ask them to pick something up or hold something for you.
- Teach a more tolerable behavior (fidgeting with a pen).
- Have them do something with their hands that they cannot do while biting nails (sit on their hands, do arm movements).
- Have them do something annoying before they are allowed to bite their nails (wiggle fingers for 30 seconds). They might just get annoyed enough to stop!
HRT Step 3: Build and maintain motivation
Use a reward system for your child. Set a timer and give your child one point if they are able to go the whole time without biting. You can also give points to your child when they stop or engage in the replacement behavior (step 2) once they hear the secret sign or code word (step 1). They can then use those points to buy rewards (screen time, dinner, or movies).
A note on punishment
Punishments are like speeding tickets — they will stop you in the moment, but most people start speeding again in a few days and try harder to not get caught. Punishments are unlikely to stop your child, but may teach them to be sneakier about their biting. This may actually increase their stress which makes them more likely to bite again!
Remember, changing habits is hard, but using these strategies can make it a lot easier. Seek additional help from your doctor when it results in the fingertips becoming sore or repeatedly breaks the skin, when it occurs with other body-focused repetitive behaviors like pulling out hair, picking their skin, or if there are other body movements they don’t seem to be able to control.
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