If you have a child who bites their nails, you know firsthand how frustrating and challenging it can be to break this habit. From using positive reinforcement and rewards to trying out different products and techniques, this article will provide a range of creative solutions for helping your child kick the nail-biting habit. Don’t let nail-biting stand in the way of your child’s confidence and self-esteem – try out these strategies and see what works best for your little one.
I have an anxious 5 year old at home who used to bite his nails everyday from the age of 3.5 all the way to 5. He learned it from me! I’ve bitten my nails since I was just five years old.
For me, the habit developed from experiencing trauma when I was so small. For my child, the habit came from watching me bite my nails when I wasn’t paying attention.
Fortunately, I can proudly say that my son and I both no longer bite our nails!
So how did I help my 5 year old stop biting his nails?
Well I tried a few things and it was most likely a combination of these things that finally broke the habit.
There are many reasons why children start biting their nails ranging from anxiety, observation to even anger. The sad part is that once that habit develops, it is really difficult to break.
Why Do Children Bite Their Nails?
Nervous habits, such as chronic nail-biting, are a common childhood habit that many children struggle with. It can be an annoying habit for family members to witness, but it is often a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. The best way to address this repetitive behavior is to set limits and find alternative habits that can replace nail-biting.
A stress ball, worry stone, or even silly putty can provide a subtle signal to the child to engage in a different behavior. For some children, a code word can be used to remind them to stop biting their nails. In rare cases of severe nail-biting, a bitter taste or bite-averting nail polish can be used.
It’s important to involve the child’s doctor in nail-biting treatments, especially if it is accompanied by underlying causes such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or separation anxiety disorder.
Dr. Cindy Gellner suggests using physical reminders, such as an emery board on the bedside table or smooth stones to rub instead of biting. Parental involvement is the best bet for addressing this harmless habit before it becomes a serious problem.
Sticker charts and positive reinforcement can be used for younger children, while older kids may benefit from relaxation techniques, deep breathing, or physical activity. Overall, the best thing parents can do is to make a special effort to find different techniques and alternative habits that work for their child’s particular situation.
The Things That Helped Me Help My Child Stop Biting Nails
The thing is, telling your child to stop biting their nails is not effective. You can talk and talk until you are blue in the face and the problem will simply not get solved.
You can also try anything and everything I have on this list and still not be successful. Nail-biting is a subconscious act in many cases and if your child doesn’t know they are doing it, punishing and nagging is going to be useless.
Sometimes children stop their bad habits on their own. If they don’t then it follows them into adulthood (like it did for me unfortunately). And honestly, my parents tried all the tricks with me too, but none of them worked! I started biting my nails because I lost my mom to suicide, and well…sometimes these kinds of habits formed in this way are simply unbreakable.
The thing that I figured out while trying to help my child stop biting his nails is that it was largely phycological. I found the same in my habit too.
When we finally broke the habit, one thing was super clear: The mindset of the child had changed.
Mindset is a powerful thing, and it’s not an easy thing to teach, but with a lot of repetition, it can be changed.
But it wasn’t just the mindset that was the answer, it was also a physical problem too.
So the perfect combination was found simply by trial and error.
Here are all the things we tried that ended up with the bad habit disappearing.
Talk About Germs
Talk to your child about all the germs that live under the fingernails and how that can affect them. Here is a good article that describes what is hiding under fingernails and how biting your nails can make you really sick.
It also goes over how hand washing isn’t a perfect solution to keeping your fingernails clean. It also goes over the fact that nail-biting can also chip away at your teeth, ruining a perfectly beautiful smile.
For my five year old, this informative talk didn’t quite work, as he is so young and most of the information went in one ear and out the other. That’s ok! It’s still important stuff to discuss.
I can see this being more effective with an older child over the age of 7.
The one thing that really worked to build the self-confidence in my child and gave him the courage to try to stop biting his nails was when I praised him for growing a nail longer. Even if it was just one nail that was longer, I still celebrated it. This action really made him happy and proud of himself.
Simply focusing on the positive in the situation helped him more than punishment and negativity ever could.
Discussion On Appearance
We also tried to talk to my 5 year old about how it makes him look when his nails are bitten. We tried to show him what unbitten nails look like into adulthood and what bitten nails look like going into adulthood.
This method did not have much affect on a 5 year old. He is simply not mentally there yet to comprehend that far into the future.
This could work if you have a teenager who does care about their looks.
Cutting It Short
Keeping the nails short so there isn’t much left to bite did work quite well. If there isn’t anything left to bite off, then there isn’t any nail biting happening is there.
The hardest part is remembering to trim those nails daily. With a busy household, that was really hard for me to keep up with.
I actually used my baby’s electric nail file to keep the nails nice and short and added the action of nail trimming into the bedtime routine for about a week.
One of my favorite things that we tried was a sensory necklace. It helped my little one bite on something other than his nails while he was watching TV or playing some video games. I noticed that the nail-biting was happening most often when he was engaged in a screen time activity. Carrot sticks also work really well instead of a necklace.
For one day we tried the band aid method. This is the simple act of placing band aids at the end of the fingertips.
This method failed because my son couldn’t do anything with his hands. He was having trouble holding things and the whole thing was just a giant annoyance.
We also tried gloves on top of the band aids to keep them from falling off and it was honestly just so hard to keep up with. The annoyance was not worth it.
This might work on a child who is more independent, but I would not suggest it for a younger kiddo.
Bitter Nail Polish
We also tried the bitter nail polish. It was horrible. I felt like I was punishing my child for a habit he wasn’t even aware of. I placed the nail polish on his fingernails and was taking it back off within an hour.
The nail polish didn’t seem to bother him too much, it bothered me more than anything. I didn’t like the idea of punishment when punishment was not deserved. You might disagree, and that’s totally fine! Bitter nail polish is something that could work well for your child.
Find a reward that your child will absolutely love and then reward them with it when they have 2 weeks of grown out nails.
Create a reward chart and give the reward when the nails are grown out to your liking.
This works well if you have other tactics in place while time passes such as using bitter nail polish, or cutting the nails short daily.
My son really enjoyed the reward of going to the store and picking out ice cream. We have ice cream at home, but the special part was the choice of the ice cream at the shop.
We created a 10 day chart on my chalk board fridge magnet and counted down 10 days of no nail biting.
This seemed to be the magic formula that worked for my child.
Here are some things that we did not try, but you could try for your kiddo.
- Nail Polish- Put on nail polish and see if your child can avoid chipping and biting it off for a week.
- Awareness- Try to let your child know when they are biting their nails and create awareness
- Counseling – If your child has severe anxiety and is biting their nails because of this, then counseling might be the move for you. This is only a good option if your child is biting so much that there is bleeding on the fingertips from the biting.
All Children Are Different
Remember that all kids are different and that there is no one solution that can help break the bad habit of nail biting in children.
The thing to keep in mind is that the more your child feels like they are not in trouble but are simply partnering up with you on solving the issue, they are more likely to succeed and you are more likely to avoid power struggles.
In fact, these things may not work for your children. Your child may only stop biting their nails when they are ready to stop biting their nails. This could mean that you might have a child who bites their nails all through childhood and eventually stops when they become an adult.
The key ingredient here is patience. Alongside patience, you’ll want to practice kindness too. This is not something that should trigger any negative emotions within the family dynamic.
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