Why We Need to Stop Shaming Our Kids About Biting Their Nails

by Nicole Breland Aandahl
Scary Mommy and Kevin Day/Getty

As parents, we want the best for our children. Which is why when we see them doing something harmful to themselves, we do everything we can to help steer them on the right path.

If you have a nail biting or picking kid (or kids) it can be both aggravating and distressing. Not only because they are hurting themselves, but also because watching them gnaw on their fingers is, well … annoying.

Which is also why we try soooo hard to get them to stop.

Now, if you are reading this, I am going to assume that you have tried your best to get your child to reform their habit – and failed. And you just cannot understand why. After all, it’s a disgusting habit, right? They’ll get sick, right? Oh, and coronavirus. Why would anyone, even a kid, want to take the risk?

When they bite, you scold. You plead. You make yucky faces. Or, you deprive them of a privilege, like a toy. But they still don’t change.

You may think that everything you say goes unheard. But it doesn’t. Your child hears everything you are saying. It might even make them bite more!

Why is that? Well, it is because behavioral research shows that positive reinforcement yields longer-lasting behavioral change than negative consequences. In fact, negative reinforcement works only as long as the “punishment” is a threat – but does not incentivize long-term change.

Another challenge is the fact that to change behavior, the person with the habit has to WANT to change. It is very easy to have that conversation with adults, because for the most part, when they decide to tackle their habits it is because THEY want to. With kids, they may not yet see their nail biting as a problem except for all of the negative attention it gets!

What, if anything, can you do to help your child overcome their habit?

You first need to understand that biting and picking is usually a response to stress or boredom. Kids cannot control the cause of their tension, so they learn to self-soothe through grooming. Nail biting and picking becomes an automatic response to tension because it is so easy to do and it is very convenient. You need to teach them healthy nail grooming and make it easy for them to do it.

You also need to use positive language and positive reinforcement. Remember, kids bite their nails because it makes them feel better in the moment. So, focus on how nice the new habits are (and feel) rather than talk about how bad the nail biting is. You will also create reward system to create goals for your child to work toward.

You should provide you child with their own nail care tools. A set of these tools should be kept within reach at all times at first to make it both easy and convenient to practice the new habits when the biting or picking starts.

Finally, take a look at your own behavior. Do you bite or pick your nails too? There is a good chance your child learned their habit from you. If you really want to help them succeed, you will need to transform your habit as well.

Getting Started

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1. Take some time to observe your child’s biting and picking habit. When do they do it? Sitting in front of the TV or computer? While doing homework? During (ahem) family arguments? Take care to note any patterns. This will help you plan when and how you will intervene and teach them the new habits.

2. Gather the following tools – several clean, gentle nail files, portable cuticle oil or cream (2-3 containers), and band aids. Choose colors or designs that you think your child will like, and create a Care Kit for them with one nail file, one of the cuticle oils, and several of the band aids. Stash the extra files and band aids around the house so they are easy to access and keep the extra cuticle oil with you.

3. Decide on what you will offer as rewards/incentives. They do not need to be extravagant – just something you know they will like and will work for. I recommend two to three small “weekly” incentives, and one larger reward when they reach their end goal.

4. Make a chart which tracks each time your child practices the new habits, when they reach each goal, and when they earn an incentive or rewards. Do NOT track the number of times they bite or pick – only track when they practice the healthy habits. Use stickers, smiley faces, or emojis and post the chart somewhere that your child can see it.

5. Pick a day and time when you will start with your chart. Find a quiet place to sit down and explain to your child that you care for them and that you are going to teach them how to care for their nails. Do not mention biting or picking at all. Make it an exciting and positive discussion. Show them the habit chart and how it will work. Discuss the weekly incentives and long-term reward and describe what they will need to achieve to earn each one. For example, the first week incentive could be a small toy or extra screen time and the goal can be to use cuticle oil twice a day. Make the weekly goals both achievable and measurable.

6. Do a nail care tutorial for your child. Show them how to gently smooth rough nails and hangnails with the nail file. Stroke lightly in one direction. Then show them how to gently massage cuticle oil into their nails. Have them feel their nails after filing or while massaging, and point out how smooth and nice they feel. Explain that you want them to practice this whenever they want to “fix” their nails by biting or picking. Give them their care kit and make it seem special, like a gift.

7. For the couple of weeks you are going to be on full-time nail biting patrol. When you see your child biting or picking, ask them: “Do you need me to smooth your nail for you?” Ask to see the “problem” nail and show them how to smooth it while saying “doesn’t this feel nice?” Have them feel the smoothed nail and ask if it is better. You can use the file in their kit or any of the easy access files around the house. Next, ask them if they would like to use cuticle oil. Let them smell the oil first (“Doesn’t that smell nice?”) and put a drop on each finger. Have your child massage the oil into their fingers while asking them how it feels.

8. If your child chews their nails until they are bleeding or raw, show them how to gently clean their injured fingers and cover with a band-aid. Then help them take extra-special care of the exposed nails.

9. Start to transition responsibility to your child after a few days. Help your child file their own nails. After a while don’t even get up to help – if you see them biting or picking just remind them to use their kit.

10. Make sure to mark your child’s progress on the chart and every time they reach a goal make a big deal out of them earning the incentive.

11. Keep positive and try not to get frustrated. You are teaching your child good habits, and that it is worthwhile to work toward goals.

12. And don’t forget — if you are a nail biter or picker, the best thing you can do for your kids is to reform your own habit. They will follow your lead.

As I explained at the top of this post, there will be a lot expected of you if you want to help your child. However, you can look forward to helping them heal and teaching them the importance of self-care and mindfulness, even if they are unaware that is what they are learning. Be patient and stay the course. Good luck!