Children and Nail Biting: Should We be Worried?

February 4, 2014

I remember as a child watching my sister bite her nails endlessly and my mother constantly taking her hands out if her mouth and reprimanding her, albeit, gently. Years later, I envy her nails. She has beautiful nails, so lovely in fact that she could be a hand model. Such a juxtaposition: chubby small hands with nails chewed to the quick and now these beautiful adult hands with long fingers and elegant nails. 

Having seen this metamorphosis, I always promised myself that if I had a nail biter, I would take it in stride, model my behaviour after my mother's, knowing that all would be fine when they grew up.

Well, I did have a nail biter. She bit not only her nails, but also her cuticles, and I did not handle it well at all. Despite the best advice from friends, I am sure I heightened her anxiety about her nail biting and made it much worse. 

So is the lesson  from all this reminiscing that nail biting is never a problem? Not at all. But it is hopefully not one of your more challenging issues with  your children.

Some Important Facts:

  • Studies show 60% of children and 45% of teenagers bite their nails.
  • Biting fingernails is a habit that often starts in childhood and becomes less common after age 18, but it can continue into adulthood. 
  • Reasons that children suck their thumbs or bite their nail include comfort, to relieve stress (anxiety), boredom, or simply habit.
  • Children most often bite their nails when their hands are not busy—for example, while watching TV, reading, sitting in class or riding in the car.
  • Nail biting is not a dangerous habit, but can be unsanitary with the transfer of illnesses such colds, diarrhea and pin worms.

How can I help my child stop nail biting?

  • Address the problem early…just like any other habit once it becomes established it will be a lot harder to break.
  • Identify triggers…by observation or discussion depending on the age of the child.
  • Increase awareness as nail biting is a subconscious habit. A lot of the time a child will not even notice when they start to bite. The easiest reminder is just to gently remove their hand from their mouth.
  • Have crunchy, healthy snacks always close at hand and ready to eat.
  • For younger children a few fun colourful bandaids on the worst fingers can be a deterrent 
  • Some parents choose to use bad tasting liquids on the nails to keep the fingers out of the mouth.
  • For female biters, young and older, try mini manicures and nail polish to map the nails look as attractive as possible.
  • Choose one badly bitten nail and urge your child not to bite that one nail. Having a smaller focus and less change all at once can be effective. If successful with that one nail, move to another.

Ultimately, most experienced parents and professionals would agree that although it can be very upsetting seeing our children biting their nails, it is usually a problem that disappears in time. The attitude of the parents is very important. Do not assume anxiety and guilt that your child has too much stress and needs professional help. 

Approach the issue in a low key manner with non aggressive verbal and physical reminders. With older children, allow time for casual discussion to ascertain if there are some issues involved. 

As I did with my sister and daughter, you may look back when the problem has resolved and wish that you had saved yourself the worry.