Nail Biting in Children

Understanding the Real Cause Behind Nail Biting in Children

Not only is nail biting in children harmful for their health, but it is also an annoying habit. This article discusses the factors that trigger the habit and some effective cures for it as well.
AptParenting Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Studies show that almost 30 to 60% of kids have the habit of nail biting. Along with it, thumb sucking, hair twirling, and nose picking are some of the habits that are commonly found in children. A child may be blissfully unaware of this fact. However, it is not the same case with parents. Nail biting usually goes away with age. However, many children carry this habit into adulthood. Various studies and their findings just reiterate parents' fear about this habit in children. For example according to 'Operant Learning Principles Applied to Nail Biting', a study carried out by Terry M. McClanahan, 28 to 33% children between the age group of 7 - 10 years, 44% adolescents, 19 to 29% adults and surprisingly, 5% of older adults have this habit. It is thus, a very common problem. In consonance with the findings of McClanahan study, we have seen many adults biting their nails, which may be something that they carried on from their childhood. Let us understand why do children bite nails and some cures for them.

Causes
Although a common problem, not much research has been done to determine the causes of nail biting. Although stress relief is most widely believed to be the reason behind this habit, other causes have also been suggested. For instance, some believe that it is genetic in nature that children of parents who bite nails or who had the habit in childhood, are more likely to pick this habit, as compared to other kids. However, this was opposed to the most widely believed theory that nail biting is a learned or an 'acquired' habit. There are others who have highlighted the correlation between thumb sucking and nail biting. Although these two habits have been found to occur simultaneously in many children, all thumb suckers do not bite their nails. Hence, as of now, anxiety and stress seem to be the reason behind this habit and this is the theory that's gaining ground. It is also associated with low self-esteem and as a mechanism to relieve pent up emotions or tension. Some psychologists also believe that it is a reaction to some deep rooted emotional or psychological problems.

Cures
For those who are wondering how to stop this habit in their kids, here are some remedies that have worked for some parents. Try them:
  • Try to identify if the reason behind your child's habit is stress. In case it is, your aim should be to identify the situations that trigger stress in your child. Did your child start biting his/her nails after you moved into a new house? Or is it his new school that you think is causing him/her stress? It is difficult to change the cause of anxiety in such cases. However, talking and reassuring your child about the new environment would be a great help to enable him to deal with the stress.
  • Talk to your child about his/her habit. Explain to him/her that it is not a good habit and that it could cause him/her health problems as well. Also explain the importance of nail care and how to go about it.
  • Distract you child when he/she bites his/her nails. This requires you to identify the circumstances when he/she does so. For example, if your child does this when on a long journey or sitting idle, it could be due to boredom. Give him/her something to play with and keep him/her engaged.
  • You could also coat your child's nails with some bitter juice or solution that does not contain any harmful substances that may be dangerous for your child's health. The bitter taste would help your child get out of the habit.
  • This method of treatment works great for older girls. Just tell them how gorgeous their nails would look if they were long and shaped up, with a coat of a lustrous pink shade on special occasions.
  • Praise you child for not biting nails. This positive reinforcement will boost his/her self-esteem. Also reward him occasionally to help him/her understand the fact that his/her efforts of giving up the habit are being appreciated. However, do not shower him/her with too many gifts, as frequent rewarding may have a negative effect on the child.
  • This might sound strange, but sometimes just leaving the habit on its own may work out. It is because in majority of the cases, a child gets rid of it as he/she grows up. This most commonly happens when a child starts going to school, and peer pressure works in reinforcing positive habits in him/her. However, in case if it does not go with time, you might need to take one of the aforementioned steps.
Nail biting is one of the mild types of self mutilating habits in children. Although in most cases, it is limited to just biting off the nails, some children damage the cuticles and also nibble at the skin and flesh around the nail. This may create serious wounds and may also leave an opportunity for bacteria and other germs to enter the body. If nail biting is severe and is also accompanied with other self destructive behavior, like tearing one's hair, a pediatrician should be immediately consulted.

Nail biting may have various causes. However, the approach for curing it is only one, and that is through love and patience. It is not difficult to get rid of this habit in kids through positive reinforcement and persistence, although in most cases it goes away with time.