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
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
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
life that you need to address."
If you have an idea about what
might be making your child anxious — 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
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
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
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.
Help 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.)
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
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
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.