How to Stop Children From Biting Their Nails

Motivate your child to stop biting her nails.
 Kevin Day / Moment / Getty Images

If your child bites their nails, they're not the only one. Around 50% of children between 10 and 18 bite their nails at least occasionally, and for many kids, the habit starts even younger.

It’s one of the most common “nervous habits,” a category that also includes hair-twisting, nose-picking, and thumb-sucking. Formally, it's characterized as a body-focused repetitive behavior. 

Overview

While some kids bite their nails because they are fidgety, others don't know what else to do when they feel anxious. Fingernail biting can be self-soothing.

In addition to being gross to witness, nail-biting could do some damage to your child’s teeth and nails. So, if your child is particularly aggressive when they're gnawing on their nails, it may be important to address the issue with their dentist.

For the most part, nail-biting doesn’t create any serious health issues—and it usually isn't a sign of a deeper-rooted issue. Instead, it's just a little nervous habit that often drives parents nuts.

Strategies

Since most kids eventually outgrow nail-bitingly, some parents find the best approach is to simply ignore it. But, for other parents, looking the other way is just too hard to do.

If nail biting has started out of the blue, you might spend a few minutes thinking about whether your child might be undergoing a bit of anxiety or stress. Keep in mind that some positive events, such as being promoted to a new reading group or getting a new pet, can be stressful for kids.

If biting their nails seems to be a bad habit, there are a few ways to work with your child to discourage the behavior:

  1. Cut their nails daily. Cutting your child’s nails lessens the surface area under the nails—and means less dirt, grime, and bacteria that can get into their mouth. Take good care of the cuticles, too; bacteria can get into the skin surrounding the nail and cause infection. Keep a small nail file or clippers in your purse. Sometimes, a snagged nail is simply too much to resist.
  2. Find a substitute. Look for something healthy your child may be able to put into his mouth. For an older child, it might be regular snacking on crunchy celery and carrot sticks. Just make sure you don’t substitute nail-biting for sugary snacks or you'll be trading one bad habit for another.
  3. Give your child something else to focus on. Find something that will keep your child’s finger’s active. They might like to gently stroke a smooth “worry stone” that they can keep in their pocket, squeeze a small stress ball or fidget with Silly Putty. This allows them to focus on the texture and feel of what’s in their hands, rather than focusing on the sound and feel of biting their nails.
  4. Pick a subtle signal between the two of you that will nudge her to stop biting. When you see them nibbling, lightly touch them on the arm or use a code word that will alert them without announcing it to everyone else. This will help them to become more aware of when she’s doing it—after all, so many of these nervous habits are done subconsciously.
  5. Create a reward system. Establish a sticker chart and mark off every day that your child doesn’t bite his nails. If your child can't make it a whole day, you may need to break the day down into smaller chunks of time, like “before breakfast” or “during dinner.” Once he collects a specific amount of stickers give him a reward—like a trip to the park for five stickers.
  6. Book a manicure. While your son might not be super-into the idea, your daughter might be excited to get her nails done once they’ve grown out a bit. Not only can it become parent-child bonding time, but the compliments she will get on her gorgeous nails might discourage her bad habit.
  7. Try bite-averting nail polish. There’s always the standard fallback: a bite-averting nail polish that tastes terrible or burns a little when they bite. (Be careful, though, as some have acetone or cayenne pepper in them, which can hurt quite a bit if your kid rubs their eyes.) Talk to your child’s physician or a pharmacist to learn about the safest options. The bad taste will at least make your child more conscious of the habit.
  8. Allow for natural consequences. Keep in mind that natural consequences can be good teachers. So, if your child occasionally causes their fingers to become sore from biting their nails too short, the pain may motivate them to stop biting their nails in the future.

Avoid Making It Worse

Calling too much attention to your child’s bad habits is likely to backfire and their nail-biting may get even worse. Punishing your child or embarrassing them for biting their nails also won’t be effective in helping them change his habits.

Help your child manage their nail-biting but don’t get too wrapped up in making them stop. Yelling or telling them that they're “gross” won’t help.

Skip the lengthy lectures about all the reasons why putting their fingers in their mouth is disgusting—that isn't likely to work either.

Helping your child put an end to biting their nails will be much more effective if they're on board with the plan. If they're not particularly motivated to quit, your efforts aren't likely to be successful. So, be patient with them and if they're not interested in stopping, you may need to wait until they are.

You might broach the subject from time to time by saying something like, "I notice you bite your nails a lot. Do kids at school ever seem to notice?" Mentioning that other people might see them doing this might make them a bit more aware of others perceive them.

Similarly, you might ask them, "It looks like your fingers get sore sometimes when you bite your nails so much. Do you ever wish you didn't do that?"

If your child is invested in giving up the habit, work together on coming up with a plan to help them. Try to identify a "code word" you can use as a reminder or they might say they want a specific reward if they can grow their nails long enough that you can have to cut them (as opposed to chewing them off before they can grow).

Be Patient

Nail-biting may get better at times and then get worse again. That’s often part of the process of getting rid of a bad habit. However, over time, your child’s nail-biting is likely to subside.

Bad habits are hard to break. If your child gets down on themself for biting their nails, remind them that you guys are in this together. And before you get too frustrated, remind yourself, too—this is probably only a phase.

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Article Sources
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  2. University of Utah Health. How can I get my child to stop biting her nails?. Updated March 19, 2019.

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