Helping Your Child Break the Nail Biting Habit

It can be frustrating for parents to see their children developing a habit of compulsion, like biting fingernails, especially if we wish we had gotten such habits mastered when we were children ourselves. When helping our children with this issue, it’s important not to express too much frustration, which the child may interpret as personal criticism and rejection. Try some of these suggestions instead:


Fingernails2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  • Observe when your child bites their fingernails. What type of situation are they in? Are they feeling bored or anxious? Do they only do it around certain people? Or in specific places? If you see a pattern, talk about this with your child in a wider context. For example, if you notice that your child bites her nails while at a specific child’s house, ask her what she feels when she’s there, and what happens there that makes her feel that way? The behavior could be a sign that some situations aren’t constructive for your child. Make another tactical item available to your child, such as a Nerf ball, small stuffed animal, or even some Silly Putty during stressful moments.


  • Discuss with your child why you want them to break this habit. The most important reasons are for their health and comfort: nail biting hurts and can lead to more frequent illnesses (due to putting their hands often in their mouths). This clarifies to your child that you’re doing this out of your concern for them, not as personal criticism.


  • Have your child wash his hands every time you see him biting his nails. He’ll get tired of interrupting his activities to wash his hands. Meanwhile, you’re minimizing the risk of his contracting colds or flu from having his fingers in his mouth.


  • Make a progress chart with progressively larger rewards as she reaches certain milestones. For example, the first time she goes all day without biting her nails, reward her with something small, like some stickers or a candy bar. Then, set the next goal at a week without nail biting. Make a chart and mark each successful day with a sticker or smiley face. Make the reward for the week a little bigger, and so on. If she doesn’t make the goal on the first try, tell her she can start over tomorrow and don’t make too big of a deal about it.


  • Clip your child’s nails once per week. Some children bite their nails if they get too long, ragged, or uneven. If your child is biting off hangnails, have him put on some hand lotion just before bed.


  • Don’t put potentially harmful substances on your child’s fingers without first consulting a pediatrician. Old school “remedies” like cayenne pepper and quinine aren’t widely practiced for a reason.


  • Make sure you’re setting a good example – don’t bite your fingernails either! If you suffer from this habit yourself, make a pact with your child to stop doing it together as a “team”. Make a chart for both of you to track your progress together, and decide on a fun activity to do together as rewards for meeting your day and week and month milestones.


  • Stay upbeat about your child’s efforts and resist the urge to express frustration in front of her. Talk about your frustrations outside of your child’s presence with other adults or your pediatrician. When you’re with your child, however, stay positive and encouraging. Share with him examples from your life of habits you have overcome, and don’t be afraid to explain that often, breaking habits and forming new ones takes time. This teaches your kids endurance.

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