Is your child’s nail-biting driving you crazy?
First, we want to assure you that you’re not the only parent looking for answers for nail-biting.
Approximately 50% of children bite their nails.1
Nail-biting is one of the most common “nervous habits” that parents worry about. Other nervous habits include hair-twisting, nose-picking, thumb-sucking, lip-biting, and cuticle or skin picking.
You may wonder why children bite their nails, if you should worry about it, and what can be done to stop nail-biting. If these sound like questions you have – you’re in the right place. Let’s dive into kids, nail biting, and the do’s and don’ts of dealing with it.
Why Is My Kid Biting Their Nails So Much?
Kids may bite their nails for a number of reasons, including:
- Trying to keep themselves awake and alert.
If your child is only biting their nails in certain situations, consider what you can do to change the situation. If they’re bored, help them find an activity. If your child is anxious, discuss the situation or work with a counselor to manage the anxiety. If your child has anxiety, professional help is the best way to go.
We all have different energy levels throughout the day. Sometimes we have very high energy and other times we have very low energy. We’ve all had to learn over time how to manage these feelings and what our body needs to feel its best. Kids are still learning about their bodies and what it needs to feel its best.
Some kids have more difficulty than others finding a balance between a slow, low energy level and a speedy, high energy level.
Often children have very high energy and know they’re not supposed to bounce off the walls. They may put that energy into nail-biting in an attempt to stay out of trouble. They have to do something with all that energy.
On the other hand, children may have low energy. These kids know they need to pay attention – but it’s so hard. They try to stay awake in a variety of ways. They may bounce their feet, rock in their chair, or bite their nails to keep themselves awake.
Try to look at the bigger picture when you notice the nail-biting or picking behaviors are at their worst.
Is your child tired, wiggly, nervous, or excited?
Does nail-biting happen all the time?
Or only during certain activities or times of the day?
Paying attention to these details will help you understand your child and be able to help them change their nail-biting habit.
Should I Worry if My Child Bites Their Nails? Is It a Problem, or Will It Go Away on Its Own?
Often the nail-biting problem will resolve over time as thumb-sucking does for most kids. However, not every child will stop biting their nails without some help.
- Is it sensory processing?
Occasionally, nail-biting can be related to a larger issue, like sensory processing disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder – but don’t diagnose your child quite yet! Let’s learn more about sensory processing first…
We all use our sensory systems to perceive the world around us. When a child’s sensory system is overactive or underactive, it can cause them difficulties. Read more about sensory processing disorder here. Your child’s nail-biting may or may not be connected to sensory processing. A professional can help you if you’re unsure.
- Is it causing a social problem?
Nail biting, cuticle picking, or other nervous behaviors can become a social problem. Does your child pick or chew frequently and other kids notice and make fun of them? Kids may also think nail-biting is gross and not want to share pencils or toys.
If your child is being picked on because of their nail-biting, lip chewing, or another nervous habit, it’s time to step into action and get them help.
- How severe is your child’s nail-biting?
Severe biting and picking can occasionally lead to skin infections or damage to the nail bed. Although not common, onychophagia is chronic nail-biting that damages nail beds and even teeth. Oral devices can help break this habit according to research. 2
Nail-biting is a habit that will often go away on its own for many children. However, if you find your child is excessively biting their nails, having social problems, or is struggling to stop biting, it may be time to help them break the habit.
What can I do to discourage nail-biting and cuticle picking?
It’s tempting to just tell your child to stop biting their nails and expect results. Think about how long they have been biting their nails or picking their cuticles. They have likely formed a habit – they are not biting their nails on purpose. Habits are hard to break, especially if they’ve been biting nails or picking their cuticles for some time.
So what should you do to help your child stop their nail-biting or cuticle picking habit?
- Make sure they know they’re nail-biting and make it a team effort to decrease it
You may think this is obvious, but sometimes your child isn’t even aware they are biting their nails. It’s an unconscious habit that has formed over time, so the first step is to gently bring their attention to it.
Tell your child you’ve noticed they are biting their nails and ask if they noticed it too. Ask if they know why they’re doing it. Inquire with compassion and kindness, not judgment.
Think about how you would like someone to approach you about a bad habit.
Help your child understand that we all pick up habits sometimes. Explain the reasons they should work towards breaking the habit. Let your child know you want to help them and make a plan together.
- Cut your child’s nails daily
Keep your child’s nails short and free of dangling pieces or sharp edges. If your child has no nails left due to biting, don’t try to cut further.
Skip this step if they have chewed their nails excessively short.
- Create a secret code word to catch their attention
Don’t nag your child about nail biting. Choose a “secret code” together that will help your child notice they are biting, without alerting everyone else. There’s no reason to shame your child or let others know what you are doing.
A code word is a simple way to help your child realize they are biting and cue them to choose a different activity. Think of a word together, make it funny. Be OK looking a bit silly in front of their friends to catch their attention and divert their behavior. Take a little embarrassment so your child doesn’t have to.
- Find alternatives to keep your child’s hands and mouth busy
Alerting your child to the nail-biting or picking oftentimes won’t help them stop. This is especially true for children who are biting or picking to meet their sensory needs. Giving your child a substitute activity for their busy hands can relieve stress when they know they’re nail-biting.
Another idea for some children is chewing sugar-free gum, which can decrease their need to chew on their nails. You know your child best and should make the final judgment about their ability to handle gum.
Even manipulating a textured sensory toy can help replace bad habits and provide the necessary stimulation and sensory input your child is craving. Fidgeting with a tactile stress ball or a squishy fidget can often help children keep their hands out of their mouths. Sensory TheraPLAY boxes are full of fidgets and fun toys that can keep little hands busy – no nail-biting needed. Check out our subscription so you’ll never run out of calming sensory tools.
- Bite-averting nail polish
This polish goes on your child’s nails and tastes bad. The intent is to reduce nail-biting due to the bad taste. There is always the potential that your child will switch from nail-biting to nail picking. Use this only if needed, and always with other, more positive methods.
- More exercise or active play for a healthy sensory system
Children need a lot of exercise and activity. Play and exercise have abundant benefits, including balancing our sensory systems and decreasing nervous habits such as nail-biting.
Read more about the benefits of movement in this blog.
What Not to Do When Helping Your Child With Nail Biting
Parenting is hard. Knowing how to respond to your child is hard too. Some techniques listed here may be your first reaction, but these are a few things we shouldn’t do when dealing with kids and nail biting.
As with everything with parenting, it’s all about patience and practice.
- Endless lectures
- Creating a power struggle
- Giving your child negative attention for nail-biting
- Yelling at your child
We all have our good days and bad days as parents. If you find you’re having a rough day, consider ignoring the nail-biting for a day. Focus more on positive interactions with your child on these rough days. Address the nail-biting another day when you’re well-rested and less stressed.
When children are 2-3 years old, they’re developing a sense of autonomy vs shame or doubt. They want to be making their own choices and be in control of their body. Taking the wrong approach during this stage can lead to a power struggle that no parent wants. It can also lead your child to feel low self-esteem or shame.
No matter what age your child is, take a deep breath and remember that most likely, your child is not biting their nails to annoy you. Don’t treat nail-biting like a behavior problem. Treat it like a sneaky habit that your child needs help breaking free from.
The Takeaway About Nail Biting, Picking and Other Nervous Habits
Your child will likely outgrow their biting and picking habits. However, you can help them stop sooner or reduce the amount of nail-biting before it becomes a problem. Good communication, creating a plan, and working as a team will help you tackle nail-biting without fighting.
Spend time together doing fun, fulfilling activities. Parenting is hard, and everyone is busy. Taking time to play with your child will help them learn activities that keep their hands busy, and playing together has the added benefit of fulfilling their emotional needs.
As always, if you’re concerned about your child’s nail-biting, or any other habit, speak to your pediatrician. Your child may benefit from occupational therapy or another intervention. You can work as a team to create a plan that works for your family and your child.