Dear Dr. Pat,
My seven-year-old daughter has been biting and picking her nails on and off since she was a toddler. I know she's just like me; she tears and chews when bored or when she’s anxious, worried or shy, or when she's been sitting still too long with nothing to keep her hands busy. I don't want her to suffer from the embarrassment of having ugly nails and I worry about the health implications. How common is this problem and how can I help her to stop?
Dr. Pat responds:
Nail biting is common, occurring in a third to half of all children. It is not a large health problem, but putting hands in the mouth can transfer germs and parasites. It can also result in deformed nails. It often runs in families, most likely because of a child learning from their parents.
You can help your daughter by working with her. For instance, both of you could start an “awesome nails club.” You and she could help each other to avoid biting nails. Take a picture of each of your hands and put them up for both of you to see. This way you will have a constant reminder not to bite your nails.
Work as a team and figure out together what you can do to help overcome nail biting. For example, both of you could apply one of the bad-tasting polishes that you can get from the drugstore.
Keep your and her nails trimmed and without snags. Doing so will reduce your daughter’s impulse to nail bite.
Encourage and praise each other when, say, a day or a week has gone by without either of you biting your nails. When you are successful, do your nails together. Or go out for a manicure.
Make it a positive mother/daughter thing. Team work will be more effective than you telling her what to do.
Don't punish or criticize. It doesn't work and makes everyone feel bad.
Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC is a clinical psychologist and a researcher. He is Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University and Vice President - Research at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. He is also the CEO of the Strongest Families Institute, which provides mental health care to families across Canada.
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