How to stop children from biting their nails

As a parent, you will encounter loads of bizarre habits in your children. Some unnerve you, while others make for funny video clips. Be it hair pulling, thumb sucking, nose picking or nail-biting, there will be something. Even parents must find ways to entertain themselves. Their kids’ silly behaviours and habits are often what they need to make it through the day.

While nail-biting is the most common habit for young and old, children are more prone to this impulse control disorder. It is believed that approximately 30% of all kids actively bite their nails. This compulsive behaviour of biting one’s nails and tearing it off with your teeth is known as onychophagia.

How to know if my child bites their nails

If you are cutting their nails weekly or fortnightly, you will instantly know. Nails, much like hair, do not just stop growing unless there is something wrong. If little Lisa has trimmed nails and you did not cut them by means of a nail clipper or infant scissor, then she is probably trimming them with her pearly whites.

If you observe them for long enough, especially when they don’t know you are looking, you will soon find them with fingers in mouth. If your little one is going to a preschool or daycare facility, your go-to person is the teacher. They will know if your toddler is pecking at his nails.

No one can really explain why, but when asked if they’re biting their nails, a child will usually deny doing it. Whether they are humiliated by it, or whether they are shy, there is no clear reason. It could be that they know it is wrong, but they are unable to stop it. Maybe the habit has formed and progressed beyond the point of limited toddler constraint. Either way, you have now become aware of it and must find out why they are doing it, and what you can do about it.

Should you stop them from biting their nails?

Most millennial parents are aware that they panic way too quickly about the most trivial matters. Yet, regardless of how senseless their concern might be, they still panic. Nail-biting is much the same as any other concern area. If you make it an issue, it will become an issue, so don’t prematurely make it an issue. There is no need to be overly hard on yourself, either. Had you noticed it any earlier, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference.

Nail-biting is a slow-forming habit that could cause long-term damage if done repetitively. So, there is still a lot of time to address this and to prevent it from becoming a serious concern. There is a thin line between normal behaviour and harmful obsession. More often than not, the irrational parent can cause it to become a harmful obsession because they direct their fears toward the situation. Instead, try to understand why they are biting their nails.

Reasons why they bite their nails and what you can do

1. Nervousness or anxiety

When discussing it with teachers or the principal, stress the fact that you do not wish to make a big thing about the biting. Rather ask them for clarity about why and when your child bites their nails, then use their eyes to gather more information.

While one child might be biting nails during eating times, another might dread a bully on the playground and bite their nails to cope with the anxiety. These are two vastly different situations that require different methods to address the habit. This is probably the only reason that could lead to the need to involve a professional, but it would be for a reason other than the biting of nails.

If your child is nervous or anxious to the point of biting their nails, then it is time to address the thing that is causing their nervousness or their anxiety. This is a golden opportunity to help them overcome obstacles and to conquer fears.

2. Concentration or boredom

If you see your child going at it while watching a movie, when you are reading a book, or when they are busy with a task, it might be because they are concentrating on what they are doing. This gives rise to the reasoning that nail-biting is a sign that your child could be a perfectionist.

Chances are, they aren’t even aware that they are doing it. In the same vein, they might be strolling around outside, taking in the sights, mesmerised by the sounds of the birds, and biting at their nails without a single thought dedicated to the act.

Whether because of their intense concentration or their complete lack of concentration during boredom, in these instances they are oblivious of the fact that they are doing something they shouldn’t be doing. A gentle reminder is a good start to solving the problem. There is no need to scream or to moan at them. Just direct their fingers elsewhere. Give them a toy or a multicoloured wooden block while watching telly, or a piece of string when you are reading them a book at night.

“If your child is nervous or anxious to the point of biting their nails, then it is time to address the thing that is causing their nervousness or their anxiety.”

3. Teething

The second set of molars emerge posterior to the first set of molars, and they can erupt anywhere between 19 months and 36 months. The process of the molars coming in, pushing up through the gums and putting stress on the other teeth, can have an irritating effect on the gums and the teeth.

For teethers, try to give them something safe to bite or to grind their teeth on. In our case, we gave our little ones a wooden spoon and told them to go wild on the handle. Sure enough, biting the handle did the job.

4. Fear about nail trimming

After having worked our way down a list of reasons that could contribute to our son’s new-found habit of nipping at his fingertips, we discovered that the whole thing stemmed from an incident where we had trimmed his nails a bit too close to the cuticle. That minor incident had given birth to a reluctance to trim nails, and eventually to his reasoning that if he trimmed them himself, we wouldn’t have to.

Over the following months, we took great care not to hurt him while trimming nails after bath time. We slowly eased him into the trimming process by involving all the kids. We even tried to make nailcare fun and fascinating. We sat them all down and explained to them how their nails worked – what was the cuticle, what we trimmed, where we should cut the nail away, and showed them how to do it themselves, etc.

What’s the worst that can happen?

Some efforts have been done to gather information on the consequences of nail-biting in toddlers and young children. While this is by no means a sure guide to the horrors that await your little angel, it is good to know what can happen if it gets way out of hand. In short, biting can lead to:

  • Severe shortening of their nails
  • Constantly broken skin on the fingertips
  • Increased risk of chronic paronychia (a nail disease following a fungal infection)
  • Partial destruction of the cuticle or the nail plate
  • And, of course, other secondary infections

While these are extreme end results, each one of them began as an innocent biting of that very first nail and grew into a problem from there. Understanding the worst-case scenario can aid in gauging the seriousness of the situation.