A generally harmless nervous habit of biting or chewing the fingernails.
Children's nervous habits, including nail biting, are common. Nail biting is in most cases harmless and is best ignored. The most problematic side effect of nail biting (and other nervous habits such as thumb-sucking and nose-picking) is social ostracism—the child may be teased by her or his peers, and adults observing a nail-biting child may conclude that he or she is insecure or stressed. In addition, the sight of fingernails chewed to the ends of the fingers is unattractive.
HELPING A CHILD TO BREAK THE NAIL-BITING HABIT
Choose a time to focus on nail biting when the child is feeling healthy and happy.
If the habit has become a touchy family or social issue, agree on a "free period," a period of time during which parents will not raise the subject with the child. This may help the child prepare psychologically to break the habit by eliminating any negative attention.
Discuss objectively the positive and negative consequences of the habit.
Raise awareness by placing mirrors where the child can see herself engaging in nail-biting.
Help the child think of an alternate behavior. For example, the child could keep a small ball handy to squeeze whenever the urge to nail-bite occurs; alternatively, he or she could concentrate on gripping something such as a book or the edge of a table or desk.
To help him or her become aware of engaging in the habit, the child could wear gloves or socks over the hands during the times when nail biting is the most likely to occur.
For public situations, less obvious than wearing gloves or socks is to apply colorful bandages to the fingertips. Commercial products that have strong, unappealing flavors can also be applied to the nails.
Don't focus on the nail biting when your child is sick or has just experienced a frustration, failure, or major life change.
Avoid punishing the child for engaging in nail biting.
Avoid discussing the nail biting in public.
Don't demand that the child stop nail biting.
Don't physically stop the nail biting by slapping the hand away
Don't expect the nail biting habit (or any habit) to be broken immediately. A strategy that involves several steps with intermediate rewards is more likely to be effective at breaking a habit.
About 30% of children ages 7-10 bite their nails. Although the habit may subside during adolescence, researchers at the University of Wisconsin estimated that 20% of college students bite their nails at some time during their college years.
Nervous habits often begin as comfort habits in infancy. When an infant feels anxious, frustrated, hungry, or tired, a familiar, often repetitive or rhythmic, activity can be calming. For many children these habits persist into childhood. For others, the habit begins during the later preschool and early elementary school years. At some point, some older children and adolescents become concerned about their appearance and are motivated to stop the habit to avoid the unsightly nails that result from nail biting.
Azrin, Nathan. Habit Control in a Day. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
Smith, Frederick Henry. Nail-Biting: The Beatable Habit. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1980.
Eberlein, Tamara. "Nervous Habits." Redbook 182, April 1994, pp. 178+.
Thompson, Andrea. "Those Nervous Habits." Good Housekeeping 221, September 1994, pp. 165+.