Saturday, December 18, 2010

Nail Biting

Q: My four-year-old, Becky, has a nail-picking habit. Got any answers?

A: First of all, I think you should sit down and have a chat with Becky. Why is she picking her nails? Is something bothering her, upsetting her, or making her anxious? When you notice your child's behavior change, this can indicate that something is going on behind the scenes. Does she have a new teacher? Did a friend move away? Is somebody picking on her at school? Did Mom just have a new baby or go back to work? New behavior can be an indicator that something's bothering her, so don't just deal with the behavior, make sure you find out if it's stemming from something underneath the surface.

Aside from whether anything is bothering her, I also suggest you ask Becky whether she minds picking her nails. Maybe she only sees the benefits (something to do when she's bored, a way to deal with anxiety) and doesn't even realize this is a negative behavior. Gently explain to her that it's not just about her nails looking pretty: her fingers can get infected and that can hurt.

You can (and should) also ask Becky if she has any ideas about how to kick the habit. She might want to go out and buy a new pair of gloves or she might want you to remind her when she's picking. As I alluded to above, she might just need a little extra special Mommy time. Or she might surprise you and come up with a brilliant idea that's not on my list. Children never cease to amaze me with their cleverness and resourcefulness.

Once you've had your chat with Becky, you have three options in terms of dealing with the behavior itself: Prevention, negative reinforcement, and positive reinforcement.

Prevention: Putting gloves on her hands or band-aids on her fingers. While this might work, it might also make Becky feel self-conscious, or even worse, damage her self-esteem. This might be something she'd consider doing at home while watching TV but she probably wouldn't want to do it in school, for example.

Negative reinforcement: Generally this would be something like scolding her or smacking her hand. I am against negative reinforcement in general and smacking in particular. Not only can these have a negative impact on your child, but they can also backfire. If she is picking her nails because of stress, then your scolding her (or her fear of being scolded) will just cause her more anxiety and potentially make the habit worse. Also, if Becky's looking for attention, negative attention is as much a reward as positive attention. So no matter what method you choose, try not to make to big a deal about the nail picking and don't talk about it all the time.

If Becky was biting her nails, though, I might offer bitter-tasting nail polish as an optional deterrent. I don't think this route would be particularly harmful to her psyche. But since she's picking and not biting, that's a moot point.

One possible negative reinforcement method would be to polish her nails with pretty nail polish and hope she won't want to ruin it. But I don't like this suggestion because a) polishing her nails could be seen as a reward - better to save this as positive reinforcement - and b) there's no way of knowing the odds of this working. If Becky's actually thinking about picking her nails before she does it, then when she looks at them and sees the nail polish it might be enough to deter her. But if she's doing it out of habit then she's probably not even thinking about it and doesn't even realize she's doing it.
Your best bet is positive reinforcement. Tell Becky that if she doesn't pick her nails, she'll get prizes or rewards. When I used to bite my nails, my parents gave me money. 25¢ per hand at the end of the day, and they'd subtract 5¢ for each nail I did bite. But Becky's a little young to appreciate money as an incentive. I recommend a sticker chart or a jar of marbles. You can give her one marble per nail she doesn't bite, or she can start out with 10 marbles in the morning and you can deduct one at the end of the day for every nail she picks. When the jar is full (make sure it's not too big!) she gets a small prize (you and Becky can decide on it together - pretty nail polish is a good one when her nails get long enough). When she kicks the habit altogether, she can get a big prize.

If you decide to go with a sticker chart, there are several ways you can do it. You can fill a sheet of paper with boxes and give her one sticker per nail she hasn't bitten at the end of the day. In the last square at the bottom of the page you can draw a picture of the prize she's going to get when she reaches that square. I wouldn't give her one sticker per day or one sticker per hand because it's unlikely she won't pick her nails at all at least in the beginning. It's too much to expect from her at first, but you can work your way up to this.

Another cute sticker chart idea is making a pair of hands - you can even trace Becky's hands onto the sheet of paper. She can put one sticker on each nail that she hasn't bitten at the end of the day.

I think the best way to go might be to divide the chart into days and periods within the day. One sticker if she doesn't pick her nails before you take her to school, one if she comes home from school without having picked, another if she makes it to dinner time, and a fourth at bed time. Then you can give prizes based on how many stickers she has at the end of the week. I like this method best because a) she's getting fewer stickers (I don't like to waste stickers! And also, 10 stickers a day is a lot, even if you're not thinking about the waste involved. It will make her think she's doing an amazing job even if she's only picking half her nails. Your goal isn't for her to stop picking some of her nails, it's for her to stop picking all of them!) and b) this gives Becky little goals that she can work toward and look forward to throughout the day. The thought of not picking her nails all day might be daunting to her. She might just not know how to go about it. But if you say "make it till dinner and you get a sticker," you'll almost hear a sigh of relief - "Just till dinner? I can do that."

Finally, try to teach Becky some skills to help her deal with the issue, such as finding something else to do with her hands when she's thinking about picking. Give her rubberbands, Koosh balls, Silly Putty, and other things to play with, or suggest she keep crayons nearby and color if she feels like picking her nails. Learning to be aware of what her hands are doing rather than picking mindlessly, and having constructive ideas of what to do instead of picking, are key ingredients in getting her to the point where she's going to get those stickers on her chart or marbles in her jar.

Good luck, Becky, and good luck, Mommy! This might or might not be a difficult journey for you both, but it's going to give Becky some great skills for the future, not least of which are patience and persistence in working toward a goal, and believing in herself.


  1. I show my daughter my bitten nails and her daddy's long strong nails. I explain that coz I always bit my nails (and still do - I am a week into another attempt to stop) they are horrible and short and bumpy, but daddy's nails are long and strong. Which does she prefer?
    I don't like putting nail varnish on a 4 year old to be honest and the nursery discourages it too.

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  5. Anonymous - Does your daughter bite her nails or is this just something you've pointed out to her as a bad habit she shouldn't get started with?

    How do you feel about clear nail polish? It doesn't look inappropriate but she'll still feel like she's being pampered and it will make her nails a little bit shiny.

    Of course, there are plenty of rewards that don't involve nail polish - a new book, a special trip (zoo, ice cream store), a small toy...