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Nail biting: Why it happens and what to do about it

  Why grade-schoolers bite their nails

  What to do about nail biting

  When to worry about nail biting

Why grade-schoolers bite their nails
Your child may bite his nails for any number of reasons out of curiosity or boredom, to relieve stress, or from force of habit. Nail biting is the most common of the so-called "nervous habits," which include thumb sucking, nose picking, hair twisting or tugging, and tooth grinding, and is the most likely to continue into adulthood. About a third of grade-schoolers and half of adolescents bite their nails, and between a quarter and a third of college students admit to still gnawing on theirs.

Growing up is an anxious process, and many of the tensions and pressures that come with it are invisible to parents. If your child bites moderately (he 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 (for exceptions, see "When to worry about nail biting"). In all likelihood, your grade-schooler will eventually stop on his own, but if the biting goes on longer than you'd like, or if it's a habit you just can't abide, there are simple ways to help him quit.

What to do about nail biting

Address his anxieties. "Our initial response when children do something that worries us is to try to stop the behavior, and that's fine as a long-term goal," says parenting educator Janis Keyser, co-author of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. "Before you can do that, though, it's essential that 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."

If you have an idea about what

might be making your child anxious a recent move, a divorce in the family, a new school, or an upcoming piano recital complete with the grandparents who pay for the lessons make a special effort to help him talk about his worries. This is easier said than done for most kids, of course, but suggesting a patently ridiculous reason for the nail biting "I know! You're trying to sharpen your teeth!" may prompt him to tell you what's really going on.

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 your grade-schooler doesn't even know he's doing it, nagging and punishing him are pretty useless. Even adults have a terrible time breaking themselves of habits like this and most parents, when they think about it, realize that they regularly model such behavior. (Be honest: Do you tug on your ear or twirl your hair while you talk on the phone?)

If the habit bothers you, set limits. "No nail biting at the dinner table" is as reasonable a rule as "No feeding the dog from your plate." If you truly can't stand it, explain in a compassionate way that you know he can't help biting his nails, but you don't like to watch, so you're going to leave the room for a few minutes. You can also remind your child that nail biting is a habit most people find unattractive, so if he must persist, he should do it in private. The most important thing is to keep what's basically a nuisance from escalating or becoming charged with emotion. Stifling your irritation for as long as you can and then snapping "Stop biting your nails! I can't stand it!" may turn out be the opening shot in a long and exhausting power struggle.

In general, though, as long as your child's not hurting himself and doesn't

seem overly stressed out, your best bet is to keep his fingernails neatly trimmed to cut down on the temptation to bite off ragged tips, remind him to keep his hands clean to cut down on his ingestion of germs, and try to keep your attention focused elsewhere. If you pressure him to stop, you'll just be adding to his stress and risk intensifying the behavior. Moreover, any direct intervention on your part such as painting nasty-tasting solutions on his fingernails will feel like a punishment to him, whether you mean it that way or not. The less fuss he associates with the habit, the more likely he is to stop on his own when he's ready, and the more likely he is to feel comfortable asking you for help.

Help him when he wants to stop. If your child's friends are teasing him about his bitten nails, he may be ready to stop and he'll need your help. First, talk to him about the teasing, encouraging him to tell you how it makes him feel. Reassure him that you love him no matter what his nails look like. Then move on to possible solutions.

Talk about breaking habits. Begin a discussion with your child about what nervous habits are and how it's possible to break them. A good book to read together is Janet Munsil's Where There's Smoke, in which nail-biting Daisy and her cigarette-smoking dad try to break their habits together. Next, decide how involved you should be in his plan to quit. Does he want you to remind him when he lapses, or will that irritate him? The older kids are, the less parental involvement they tend to prefer.

Nail BitingHelp him become aware of the habit. Encourage your child to become more aware of when and where he bites. Agree on a quiet, secret reminder for times when he forgets a light touch on the arm or a code word.

Some kids benefit from physical reminders that call their attention to the habit the moment they do it. This option is helpful as long as your child is the one choosing to try it; if not, it'll just seem punitive to him. Some techniques to try: Having him keep adhesive bandages on his fingertips or stickers on his nails; painting his nails with two layers of nail strengthener, which makes biting more of a challenge; or applying a bitter-tasting bite-averting solution such as Thum, available in drugstores. Be sure to check the ingredients first, though. (Thum, for instance, is made with cayenne pepper, so it's appropriate only for kids who can remember not to rub their eyes.)

Offer an alternative. Suggest a substitute activity or two (Silly Putty for car rides, for instance, or a smooth stone to hold while reading), and then have your child practice the alternative habit for a few minutes before school or at bedtime. In addition, identify some relaxation techniques he can try when he feels the urge to bite deep breathing, say, or clenching and releasing his fists. You might also attach a small pair of fingernail clippers to his key chain or belt loop so he won't be tempted to gnaw at snags. If he's old enough, teach him how to use an emery board and keep one on his bedside table or in a handy spot in the bathroom.

Try and try again. Explain to your grade-schooler that different people respond to different techniques, and encourage him to try a variety of solutions if the first one doesn't work. In general, the older he is, the more responsibility he can take in this endeavor.

Finally, remind him and yourself that habits are hard to break and that the two of you are on the same side. Take a break from habit-breaking if you need to. Eventually your patience and persistence will pay off.

When to worry about nail biting
In rare cases, severe nail biting can signal excessive anxiety. Consult your child's doctor or school nurse if he's biting his nails so intently that his fingertips are sore or bloody, if his nail biting is accompanied by other worrisome behaviors, such as picking at his skin or pulling his eyelashes or hair out, or if he's not sleeping well. Also consult your child's doctor if his nail biting habit surfaced suddenly and escalated quickly. In either case, professional counseling may be in order.

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