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Nail-biting is very common in children. 60 percent of 10-year-olds bite their nails which means that the non-nail-biter is in the minority at school.

Most children who bite their nails start doing this around age five but some start as early as age 3 or even 2. Unlike most other mammals we are designed so we can put our hands near our mouth all the time whether we are lying down, standing, or sitting. It’s easy to suck a thumb or bite a nail!

There may be a genetic component as nail-biting is more common when parents were nail-biters as children and twins are likely to start biting their nails at the same time. Children are also great imitators. If an adult in the household or family is a nail-biter, the child may think, “That looks like fun!” Thus, environmental as well as genetic factors play a role.

If you follow 100 children in the fifth grade who bite their nails, each year some will stop. Although nail-biting is pretty common in high school, by college age only 20 percent are still chewing their nails. By age 30 only 10 percent of the population are nail-biters.

Nail-biting is one of the so-called “tensional outlets”. This term helped change our previous thinking that nail-biting and other such behaviors were bad habits. There is nothing “bad” about a child who chews his or her nails.

Tensional outlets like thumb-sucking, head-banging, and rocking are common in young preschoolers. The hand-to-face tensional outlets like nail-biting and nose-picking become very common in kindergarten, along with fidgeting behaviors.

All of us have bad moments when we feel tense and out-of-sorts. Indeed tension is universal. Adults have a repertoire of ways to relieve tension from “bad” things like smoking, to healthy things like taking a brisk walk. Children are more limited in their choices but have as much need to relieve tension as adults do.

Some parents think it strange that a child should feel tension. Isn’t childhood an idyllic time with no worries? If a child has tension isn’t it the parents fault for not making the child’s life smooth? The answer to both questions is “No”. Childhood has its share of tensions; growing up is a hard job. Parents cannot, and should not, eliminate tension from their child’s life. Every child has to learn ways of reducing tension that are socially and personally acceptable.

If a child is a nail-biter does this mean the child has an abnormal degree of tension? The answer again is “No”. Years ago nail-biting was thought by the psychoanalytic school of therapists to be a form of self-mutilation. Very rarely we see severely disturbed children who bite themselves to hurt themselves. But most childhood nail-gnawers do NOT hurt themselves.

Some children chew their nails only when they are under special stress like seeing a scary movie or taking a test at school. But in my experience most kids just bite their nails. The act of biting is a pretty unconscious one which is why this is a hard habit to break.

The best thing parents can do about nail-biting is NOTHING!. Nagging, reminding, scolding, ridiculing (“You look like a baby with your hand in your mouth all day long!”), or threatening (“You’ll get an infection!” or “You’ll have ugly hands!”) are all useless. They may actually be counterproductive because the parents make the child even more tense.

Parents can model ways of REDUCING STRESS by including the kids in exercise or “stress-breaks” when the whole family lies on the floor and does deep-breathing or images themselves in a peaceful place.

If the child is motivated and wants to stop nail-biting, you can try using a BITTER SUBSTANCE to paint on the nails like Stop-zit which is available at drug stores. My daughter saw a friend use this, asked for it, and it worked. It works because it makes the act conscious. The bitter taste tells the child that the finger is in the mouth so the child can take evasive action. Other helpful things include keeping the nails and cuticles smooth using emery boards and hand lotion.

You can also try the GOLD STAR SYSTEM. Make a chart together. Let the child affix a gold star for every chew-free day. When there is a goodly number of such days–perhaps a week–there will be a special treat. It helps if the child selects the treat and the length of time.

Promising a manicure when the nails have grown in often works in little girls.

Whenever there is any problem in which your child is repeatedly doing one thing and you want the child to stop doing that thing, I always like to suggest the Child-Owns-The-Problem; Let-The-Child-Figure-Out-The-Solution Game. In order for this game to work you need a verbal child age five or older although I’ve seen it work with some bright fours. Have a “meeting” just like grown-ups do, preferably at a restaurant. Explain to your child you want to have a talk. Ask your child about the nail-biting. Do you know why you do it? Does it bother you? Do you want to stop? If the answer to all three questions is “No” the child doesn’t want to play and the game is over.

If the child does want to stop, YOU STOP TALKING. Ask the child, “Jonah, you seem to have a problem with nail-biting. How do you suppose you might be able to fix it?” And wait for an answer. Sometimes the child can’t think of an answer, sometimes the solution is magical or far too stern (“Tie up my hands in mittens.”) but sometimes the answer is ingenious and worth trying.

However such a “meeting” is not always necessary. As problems in kids go, nail-biting is not a serious one. Accept the fact that this is the way your child relieves tension and that 90 percent of children who chew their nails stop by the time they are adults. This attitude will provide your child with your unconditional love and acceptance as well as freedom from nagging.