How to stop junior from biting his nails

It might look like harmless now, but nail biting can become a lifelong habit and cause health complications.

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Nail biting is one of the many pesky habits ― besides nose picking and thumb sucking ― your little one will pick up as a child. “This habit typically starts when the child is around 3 or 4 years old,” notes Dr Chan Poh Chong, head and senior consultant of general ambulatory paediatrics and adolescent medicine at National University Hospital.

According to Dr Chan, an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of children bite their nails. Most parents consider it to be a harmless form of exploration on their tot’s part. However, unlike other childhood habits, nail nibbling doesn’t always disappear on its own once your child outgrows the urges. In fact, Dr Chan notes that a study revealed that up to 40 to 50 per cent of adolescents still bite their nails, a continuation of a habit that usually starts from childhood.

Why do kids bite their nails?

Some experts agree that nail biting may not be as straightforward as thumb sucking or nose picking. Kids who gnaw on their nails could often be displaying a side effect of some kind of stress they might be experiencing, but isn’t confident enough to give voice to.

Other times, kids simply do it out of boredom or as a way to get their parents’ attention. By the way, if you are a nail biter yourself, chances are, you’re modelling that undesirable behaviour to your mini-me.

Kids who gnaw on their nails could often be displaying a side effect of some kind of stress they might be experiencing, but isn’t confident enough to give voice to.

“We can look at the child’s behaviour and the circumstances to assess if the nail biting is due to boredom or anxiety,” notes Dr Chan. “Nail biting by itself is a habit, but when and how the child does it may give an indication of the cause.”

Usual stress triggers in tots include the arrival of a new sibling, starting preschool or day care or a change in caregiver, such as a parent going back to work or a new helper joining the household. Junior might also be trying to cope with the anxiety that comes with mastering a milestone, such as sleeping by himself in a new bed or potty training.

Why is it bad to bite your nails?

Whatever the reason for your kewpie’s nail biting, one thing’s for sure ― it has to stop. Prolonged nail biting not only results in unsightly hands, but also bleeding and infection.

“Nail biting damages your nails, but it can also cause infections around the nailbeds and from poor hygiene,” warns Dr Chan. Plus, it damages your child’s teeth and gums. Constantly having his hands in his mouth can also put your mini-me at risk for malocclusion, which is the misalignment of your teeth. Having crooked, crowded, or protruding teeth can lead to gum problems or periodontal disease, severe headaches, and even sleep disorders.

“Plus there’s also guilt and shame which results from nail biting,” notes Dr Chan. These feelings can also continue into adulthood, since it’s not socially acceptable to bite one’s nails in public. This can add to a person’s already existing anxiety or nervous disposition.

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Ways to help your child break the habit

Help your child break this gross habit once and with five easy suggestions from Dr Chan. Several are so simple, you can try them today!

TIP #1 Ignore the behaviour
First, make sure you’ve addressed any possible underlying anxiety issues. If there are none and you are certain junior mimicking someone else’s behaviour or experimenting to get attention, ignoring it will usually resolve the issue. The more you nag, scold, or yank junior’s fingers out of their mouth, the more likely they are to persist doing it.

TIP #2 Speak with a counsellor
If there are signs that suggest that nail-biting is a manifestation of underlying anxiety or problems, visit a doctor to assess what the problems and triggers are. Doctors can also look out for any health complications arising from the habit and advise on the next steps, plus, write a referral to a specialist and a counsellor.

The more you nag, scold, or yank junior’s fingers out of their mouth, the more likely they are to persist doing it.

TIP #3 Distract with another activity
Whenever you notice your wee one about to put their fingers into their mouth, quickly distract them with another activity. This should preferably be one that will require them to keep their ands busy such as outdoor play, or drawing or painting, so that they don’t get a chance to bite their nails. It is sedentary activities like watching TV or playing on the iPad that will encourage junior to chew on their fingers. Keeping busy and active is also a great way for your tot to blow off some steam if their nail nibbling is caused by stress or anxiety.

TIP #4 Make him aware of what he’s doing
As some children may sub-consciously bite their nails when they are bored, you need to draw attention to what they are doing. Most will try their best to stop the anti-social act if they are repeatedly told that such habits are not acceptable. A fun and effective to do so is to tell junior immediately when they start to bite their nails and reward them once they stop. Another alternative is to use visual props, so junior will immediately refrain from doing it, instead of waiting to hear from you. If you have a daughter, you can paint her nails a pretty colour. She will know that she will ruin her manicure if she bites them. Cute and colourful plasters are another effective visual cue.

TIP #5 Be sympathetic, don’t judge
At the end of the day, all your child wants is help breaking their bad habit instead of being shamed for doing it. As a parent, you must first understand the underlying problems that are causing your mini-me to nibble on their nails. Once you’ve identified them ― even if the reason is just boredom ― explain to your child that it’s a bad habit and why they should stop. Keep in mind that you’ll have to give this talk a few (hundred) times, before you see the full results, so patience is key!

Photos: iStock

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