As our children thrive and grow from babyhood to toddlers to independent little people, like any of us they too will naturally form habits, whether that is thumb-sucking, hair twisting or nail-biting! Likewise, as parents, we can often be unaware of the little worries they have. Growing up can be hard work sometimes, and this is often when our children express these worries in different ways, like nail-biting. More often than not it’s an unconscious habit that children develop as a means of distracting or relaxing themselves, and it’s not something to worry about - it will subside in time; however, if you feel that it’s got to that point of sore fingers, or if you or your child want to simply break the habit, there are some subtle ways of giving them that helping hand.
More often than not our children don’t even realise they are biting their nails, so trying to negotiate consequences is one approach to stay clear of. Dr Eleanor Galvin of Rosemount Family Doctors would say that “ordinary common nail-biting is of no serious harm. It is rare in children under three, but 30% of older children and over 70% of teenagers nail-bite. It is generally not caused by any serious underlying causes like anxiety or stress but is generally done out of habit or boredom.”
Although you can chat to your child about ways of helping them to stop, what we want to avoid is drawing negative attention to it. Stay positive, and encourage them to stop. Praise them for not biting their nails. As long as they are not hurting themselves, encourage keeping the nails short and clean so there’s not too much temptation!
Tune into their behaviour
When a parent notices a habit forming or a behaviour that’s out of character, we naturally seek a solution to stopping it. If your child is biting their nails because it’s their way of coping when worried, or something new has happened in their little life like moving house, starting school or a new sibling arriving home – it’s a good start when we can identify what might be triggering them. From there, we can acknowledge feelings and chat about what those worries might be. We know, like many habits for both children and adults, they will break over time – with a little understanding and your child on board too, this is often the way to go. For children who really enjoy story books, The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit by Stan Berenstain dips into breaking the habit of nail-biting and is a gentle read for smaller children. For the older child, What to Do When Bad Habits Take Hold: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Nail Biting and More by Dawn Heubner is more solution-focused and works when read with their parent.
Make a plan
If your child is content in changing their habit of nail-biting, the next step is to decide on solutions together. Look closely at when your child bites his/her nails; encourage them to be aware so the next time they can try out that something new. Often, agreeing on a subtle gesture or word to remind them of this can really help without drawing too much attention or ‘niggling’ at him.
Help your child to learn new responses when he feels like biting his nails - give him a fidget toy like a hair bobbin or soft putty, particularly during times when they are winding down or on car journeys. The key is finding something that will work for your child.
Make sure he gets out and about to play. Often, burning off that energy can release any worries he may have as well as getting lots of fresh air.
If your child enjoys table-top activities then play dough, mixing cornflour with water to create a gooey mixture to play with, arts and crafts or baking are great ways to keep hands busy and encourage distraction and relaxation.
Dr Galvin explains for the parent to “encourage your child to love their nails, treat their fingers as ten little friends. Name them if it helps. We don't bite our friends. If it is one finger in particular they bite, put a band-aid over it to remind them to stop. Children are like fabulous little mimics - they love imitating us - they wear our shoes, they try on our lipstick. Remember; if you are a parent who bites their nails, they may be imitating you!”
What’s important when encouraging this change in habit is explaining that everybody is different and what works for some may not work for others. But remember; it’s such a positive feeling for your child to know you are on their side. Like many parenting issues, positive attention, persistence, patience and perseverance will get your child closer to achieving their goal of breaking habits for the good!
If you feel at any point that you need additional advice and support, always talk to your G.P. or public health nurse for an alternative service.