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How can I help my 4-year-old stop biting his nails?
Angie Jackson
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, Mom.’ 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.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education