Q. My daughter will not stop biting her nails. Can this be harmful to her health? How do you break this habit?
A. Nail biting is often a frustrating problem for parents who seek ways to extinguish the behavior. It is a habit that most commonly develops between the ages of 3 and 6. It’s usually done outside of the child’s awareness and is often an activity used for self-soothing, reducing tensions, or done as a “time waster.” This habit generally fades with time but may take years. While parents are anxious to see this habit stop, the first step in managing it is to ignore the behavior. When you call attention to the habit with punishment, ridicule or harsh words, you many actually increase the tension that the habit is trying to reduce, resulting in a worsening of the nail biting. It’s better to praise the child when he/she is not doing it and give positive reinforcement. If the child shows interest in stopping the behavior, you can suggest alternatives to nail biting. You can also try an over-the-counter bitter tasting compound to put on the nails, but without the youngster’s cooperation, this has a low rate of success. Seek professional help if the habit begins to negatively affect the child’s social life.
Karin L. Alcantara, M.D., FAAP
Galen Medical Group
1651 Gunbarrel Road, Ste. 302
Chattanooga, TN 37421