Why Your Child Bites Their Nails and How to Help Them Stop

Here’s how to help your child stop the bad habit once and for all.

An image of a child biting her nails.
Photo: Getty Images.

Nail biting is unsightly and can lead to skin damage, infections, and other health risks. It is a common habit during childhood, and although it can be frustrating for parents, it's often harmless, and kids usually outgrow it over time. "A lot of kids stop biting their nails as they age and start to look around and see that other people aren't doing it," says David Hill, M.D., adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro.

Excessive nail biting can be problematic for kids' health, causing infection or damage to the skin, nails, and cuticles. We spoke with three pediatricians to better understand why kids bite their nails and how to help them stop.

Why Does My Child Bite Their Nails?

According to the International Journal of Women's Dermatology, nail-biting—or onychophagia— is a compulsive, chronic condition experienced by 20 to 30% of the population. Children might bite their nails for several reasons, including anxiety or physical restlessness. "Because it's a repetitive habit, it may be a self-soothing behavior," says Kimberly Montez, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine and associate director of Integrating Special Populations for the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity.

On the other hand, "sometimes it's purely cosmetic," says Antwon Chavis, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Oregon Health & Science University. "Some kids really like having short nails." He adds that nail biting can also happen if children are bored or under-stimulated.

Consequences of Biting Your Nail

Although nail biting is unsightly in social situations, it's typically harmless for kids. However, it can become a medical concern if it damages the cuticle, nail, or surrounding skin. "If the skin around the nail is red, painful, or has a discharge, your child should be evaluated by their pediatrician," says Dr. Montez.

Nail biting may also increase the risk of paronychia, a skin infection around the nails. "And if kids play in the dirt a lot, there's also the opportunity to get parasitic infections from eggs that may be in the dirt," says Dr. Hill.

The consequences of nail biting may not be limited to damaging fingernails; according to one study, nail biting may also contribute to gum and tooth root damage. The force of biting down hard enough to break or tear a nail can impact children's teeth and lead to serious dental problems.

Lastly, nail biting can be a sign of depression or anxiety. "If a child is experiencing pain or discomfort from biting their nails, but they do it anyway, they may be trying to tell you that they have some anxiety that biting their nails is providing relief for," says Dr. Chavis.

How to Stop Your Child From Biting Their Nails

Parents should never be punitive or insulting about their kid's nail-biting habits. "Often, calling attention to the behavior, especially through ridicule or punishment, will cause it to worsen," says Dr. Montez.

Here are a few ways to interrupt your child's nail-biting habit.

Show your child what their habit looks like

If you're disturbed or distressed by nail-biting, you can try habit reversal training, which uses positive reinforcement. Dr. Hill explains most people are unaware of their habits, so the first step is bringing it to your child's attention. One way to do this is by sitting your child in front of the mirror as they bite their nails and saying, "This is what it looks like and feels like when you're biting your nails."

Or, if your child is old enough, you can ask them about their nail biting. "When you gently bring it to their attention, you can say, 'Do you feel better when you do that? Or are you just bored?'" says Dr. Chavis. "Kids can give very insightful answers to simple questions."

Use the power of distraction

You can also try focusing your child's energy on something else. For example, instead of biting their nails, they may hug a doll, play with a fidget spinner, squeeze a stress ball, or snap a rubber band. "And every time you notice them trying to bite their nails, you remind them that they have a different, more acceptable habit to pursue instead," says Dr. Hill. Over time, the less desired habit gets replaced with the more desired habit; remember to give positive reinforcement along the way. For example, "You may say, 'Oh, I like how you remembered to squeeze your stress ball just then,' or 'I love how your nails are growing right now. It looks like you haven't bitten them in a little while,'" says Dr. Hill.

Look for stressors that may be causing nail-biting

For some kids, nail-biting may be a coping mechanism for dealing with stress. It is important to know if something is upsetting your child and help them find healthy solutions.

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