How to kick the nail-biting habit

Get rid of your child's nail-biting habit with these tips!

By Rakhee Maloo  • 7 min read

How to kick the nail-biting habit

Nail biting, or its technical term onychophagia, is quite prevalent in children. And, dirty nails can be a breeding ground for many disease-wielding viruses and bacteria. With the government promoting and stressing on the need to wash hands to ward off dangerous ailments, we take a closer look at how to deal with this habit. This World Cleanliness Day, let’s teach our children the virtue of nail hygiene and teach them how to stop the nail biting habit.

‘Nail-biting’ statistics

  • Around 60% of kids bite their nails. The figure stands at 45% for teens and 30% for kids in the age group of 7 to 10 years.
  • Females are more susceptible to nail biting than males.
  • In one epidemiological study on 4,590 school children in India, 12.7% kids reported the habit.

What causes nail biting?

Kids begin to bite their nails for several reasons including:

• Stress

• Anxiety

• Boredom

• Loneliness

• Psychiatric disorders

What are the risks of nail biting in children?

• It can lead to sore fingers and bleeding cuticles.

• Germs from hands can reach your child’s mouth and cause other infections such as a cold. Nail biting can also cause paronychia, which is a type of painful infection. The area around the nail becomes severely infected with pus, which may need to be surgically removed.

• Continuous fiddling with nails can lead to weak and poorly-aligned teeth.

• Feelings of embarrassment/low self-esteem from chewed nails are possible.

• Nail biting can cause additional anxiety.

How to treat/prevent nail biting?

1. Pay attention:

The first step in the timely treatment of your kid’s nail-biting habit is to pay attention. Do not ignore it as something ‘that will go away on its own’. It may go away as the child grows older but you can’t take a chance with your kid’s health.

Figure out what makes your child bite his nails – fix the so-called triggers. This calls for paying some serious sleuth-like attention to your child as he goes about his day. Does he bite his nails when he is bored? Did the habit get triggered when you went away on a work-related trip? The stress of exams? The trigger could be anything. But you need to be sure of it to treat it.

The trigger may not be obvious. Your child’s nail-biting habit could be an extension of his psychiatric disorders. Studies show that 74.6% of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also bite their nails. Does your child suffer from ADHD or separation anxiety disorder? Does he often wake up from nightmares? Have you noticed signs of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in him? If you answered in the affirmative to even one of the above questions, you may need to talk to a therapist to understand the root of your child’s nail-biting problem.

2. Take action:

Once you have identified the trigger, doing away with it may make the habit vanish. But there are chances that your child is stuck with the habit as he finds it comforting. You may need to approach the problem in different ways until you find a solution.

Explain the health risks of nail biting to your child.

Teach him to distract himself when he feels the urge to bite his nails. He could listen to his favourite music or take a break from a current task. He can play ball, solve puzzles or just read something.

Use a reward system to break his nail-biting habit. For instance, tell him that every time he stops himself from giving into the temptation to bite his nails, you will put money (a fixed amount every time) towards a gadget he really wants, a holiday he craves or new clothes.

You can put band aid on your child’s nails to prevent him from chewing them. Try using the ones with cool prints available in the market today. Your toddler may love cartoon prints; an older child may prefer band aid in bright colours.

3. Be gentle:

A slow, steady and gentle approach is the key to help your child.

Refrain from scolding your child or reproaching him in front of others for his habit.

You can ask your child to stop biting his nails one finger at a time. He could begin by not biting the index fingers and then move on to the thumbs. This way, he won’t suffer from anxiety of not being able to bite his nails. And, he will be able to see healthy changes in the protected nails, which won’t be damaged any more. This can act as a motivating factor for him to quit biting his nails.

Whether your child’s nail-biting habit is a serious problem or just a bad habit, timely intervention will help you resolve this issue.

Rakhee Maloo is a freelance writer from Hyderabad.