Ellen Barrett, a parent educator at Heights Parent Center (now known as Family Connections) for the last 12 years, fields questions from parents about the daily ups and downs of parenting. The same issues impact many parents. If you have questions you would like Barrett to respond to in this column, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. My five-year-old is always biting his nails. Although it doesn’t seem to bother him, it drives me crazy! I’ve tried to keep him from putting his hands in his mouth to keep him from spreading and catching germs, but most of the time I don’t think he even knows he is doing it. He’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall, and I think it could become an even bigger problem. Is there anything I can do to help him stop this nasty habit?
A. It is not always easy to figure out what causes a habit like nail-biting, but it is usually a learned behavior that has some positive benefit. For example, your son may be more likely to bite his nails to entertain himself when he is bored, to soothe or comfort himself when he is anxious, or to relax to go to sleep. He might also be copying the behavior of others. If you, or your husband, is a nail-biter, it is not surprising that your child might be one, too. Finally, be aware that nail-biting or similar habits, may be used to get attention, so make sure your response doesn’t inadvertently reinforce the behavior.
Although it’s likely your child will outgrow this habit in time, there are a few things you can do to help him reduce or stop the behavior.
* Notice when he bites his nails. If you see a pattern (when he’s bored, when he’s anxious, when he’s sleepy), see if you can head off the behavior before it starts. Try gently holding his hands in yours or distracting him with an object he can hold.
* Calmly point out to him that he is biting his nails, so he becomes aware of the behavior. Encourage him to take his hands out of his mouth. Be sure not to ridicule, scold or punish him.
* Suggest alternative behaviors. For example, suggest tapping rhythms on the table.
* Praise any increase in self-control. Notice when he has been able to go for a period of time without biting his nails. Some kids respond well to sticker charts. Gradually increase the time allotted for his reward (all morning, all day, all week).
Above all, be patient. Remember that it takes time for a behavior to become a habit, so it will also take time for it to disappear.
Please note that if your child’s nail-biting habit is causing bleeding or pain, or if you think he is more anxious than usual, contact your primary care physician for advice.