I’m a nail-biter. I’ve hid my fingertips since my early school-aged years. So, imagine my reaction when my seven-year-old daughter started biting her nails: ashamed, guilty, upset — take your pick. I fully admit that my embarrassment about my own nail-biting influences how I’m handling this situation. I tend to admonish or nag her about what this gross habit looks like to others.
My daughter started when most kids begin nail-nibbling, in grade one. And while there’s no nail-biting gene passed between parents and children, she probably started doing it after observing me chewing away, notes Michael Dickinson, chief of paediatrics for Miramichi Regional Hospital in Miramichi, NB. Dickinson estimates that 20 to 25 percent of children are chronic nail-biters. (It’s even more common in adolescents.)
There are many reasons why children turn to nibbling their nails. Nine-year-old Hanna Hastings in Guelph, Ont., has been biting her nails for as long as her mother, Liz Hastings, can remember. It’s a way to handle stress or listlessness. “Sometimes she does it when she’s bored,” says Hastings. “Or, if a new task is introduced and Hanna worries she won’t be able to do it, she chews her nails in frustration.” Some children with anxiety, notes Dickinson, are orally fixated. Whether it’s a soother, a thumb or their fingernails, having something in their mouth is calming. “Soothers and thumbs aren’t socially appropriate when kids are older, so nail-biting can perpetuate that oral fixation in a semi-acceptable way,” he adds. If your child seems overly anxious, though, chat with your physician further about the issue. (The American Psychiatric Association has proposed adding nail-biting as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] to the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM.)
So what’s a mom to do? While I’ve all but kicked the habit myself, I should ease up on calling out my daughter’s nail-biting, says Dickinson. “You need parental finesse to handle a habit like this. You want to discourage your child’s biting, but not in a way that embarrasses or punishes them,” he says.
Dickinson also encourages early intervention. “It’s a tough habit to break once it’s established,” he says. “My advice is as soon as you notice that your child is biting her nails repeatedly, gently intervene. The longer she does it, the harder it is to stop.”
Many parents resort to a variety of creative techniques, including painting their child’s nails with a special gross-tasting polish, wrapping their fingertips in bandages and promising manicures for long nails. Hastings took a two-pronged approach: she read a grooming book that covered nail hygiene with her daughter, then set realistic goals, such as 24 hours without nail-biting, then 48 hours, and so on. This helped her daughter see that she could do it. “Hanna isn’t out of the woods yet, but she has a few fingers with [longer] nails and a few without,” says Hastings. “I’m trying to steer the focus toward celebrating the small victories.”
Rather than nagging and scolding, lately I’ve been taking a persistent but softer approach, per Dickinson’s advice. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all treatment to the habit. “For 20 years I’ve been telling parents, ‘If you find something that works for this, give me a call,’” says Dickinson. “And I haven’t gotten one call yet.”
A version of this article appeared in our March 2013 issue with the headline “Nail nibblers,” p. 84.