I’ve helped a few families stop the nail biting, without chemicals or punishment. Here are is a step-by-step plan and the ideas that have worked best.
1) Pay Attention. Nail biting is a nervous/anxious behavior and should be looked at as a sign that there is an underlying issue. Not one which every child must go to a therapist for (in actuality, many, many children and adults bite nails), but one which shouldn’t go ignored. Ask your child what they are feeling once you notice the biting and pay attention to what was just happening and what is upcoming for your child. These are self-soothing behaviors and only a budding rational mind will be able to compete with the impetus and change a behavior, therefore we must not get angry. If we ourselves bite our nails, discuss with your child why you do it, when it started and work on ending it as partners. Help your child address the cause of the stress.
2) Prepare for Change. Let your child know that you’re hoping to work together to stop the nail-biting and that you will try some things together. If there is any pain, uncomfortable fingers or shame from the behavior, ask your child how it feels and let them know you are there to help them learn how to stop. When nails are too short it can be slightly painful, ripping them off can be painful and often there is cuticle biting involved which can open up into open sores. Let your child know that it’s your job to help them learn how to stop having uncomfortable fingers.
3)Re-Direct: Decide together to keep fun band-aids around the finger-tips as reminders not to bite for about a week, not during sleep. It won’t feel the same as before and even though they may bite the band-aid or take it off, a child over 2 years may be able to have enough time between the impetus to bite and the act of biting to stop and re-direct themselves to something new. Help your child learn how to re-direct to feeling some jewels in the pocket, find a real or stuffed animal to hug, ask an adult for a hug, learn to take deep breaths, or do 5 jumping jacks. All are proven to reduce anxiety without creating new compulsive behaviors. Something on the fingers like band-aids or essential oils may be needed at first, to help stop the behavior when it usually hasn’t been conscious.
4) Essential Oils: This is probably the last resort, but there are healthier ways than yucky chemical nail polishes meant to derail nail-biting. There are bitter essential oils that you can rub under the nails and on the cuticles. Bitter orange oil is a good one. Melaleuca/Tea Tree oil you may already have in your home. Those two are not meant for ingestion. Oregano oil is an anti-fungal and really spicy, safer for ingestion as is clove, but either way you are just rubbing a tiny bit into the cuticles and under the nails. I would start with a drop of the oil mixed in a few drops of coconut oil, fractionated is best. You can find the safest quality fractionated coconut oil and these essential oils here.
What not to do:
- Don’t compare the child to other kids who don’t have the habit.
- Don’t make it all about how somebody else wants the child to stop. Focusing on negative attention may cause stress which might cause more of the behavior you are trying to change together.
- Don’t begin when the child is starting a new school or moving.
- Don’t put something toxic on the digits.
- Don’t point out the habit if the child does it as comfort when they get hurt.
- Don’t make it about germs. It is just as true that germs on our hands make us healthy as make us sick. Children are susceptible to fear of germs, phobias and obsessive compulsion around germs. Don’t let that be what replaces the unwanted habit.
- Don’t neglect to address a problem with a professional. I highly recommend play therapy or art therapy with a professional for children who have severe nail biting that you an relate to other issues with stress, adjustment, or sensitive personality.