Dear Dr. Caldwell, I read your reply to a question on how to get a child to stop picking their nails. You indicated this is usually something that starts between 5-7 years old and rarely younger, which sparked my concern because my 4-year-old son has this habit. He does it all the time and it is noticeable. I have always been a nail biter/picker and I think he may have picked it up from me. I am concerned because I personally know how unattractive it is, and I also know it can stem from anxiety or stress. My marriage is rocky and at times so I'm sure this stress affects my children.
Dear Angie: I appreciate your directing a question directly to me. It is gratifying to know for sure that someone reads all these things I write! But I think you’ve basically answered your own question. That is, I think he is biting his nails for both of the reasons you have identified. First, he is under a lot of stress. He sees you biting your nails and, without being able to verbalize it, essentially says to himself, “Here’s something I can do when I feel uptight.” And my guess is that the stress also leads you to bite your nails. If you can work out some of the family problems, I predict that both of you will greatly reduce the frequency of nail-biting—and that teeth-grinding at night will also disappear.
Here’s a suggestion that’s worth trying: why don’t you work on the habit together? Say something like the following to your son: “You know, we both bite our nails, and that’s a bad habit. I’ll help you quit if you’ll help me. Every time you see me start to bite a nail, you call out ‘No, mum.’ And I’ll do the same for you. And when we can get through a whole week without either of us biting a nail, we’ll go out and do something very special together.” And be sure to give little rewards along the way—an extra cookie, a star on a “nail-biting chart,” etc.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.