My five year-old son has fallen in the habit of biting his nails. It's getting worse, with his skin cracked and peeling — sometimes even bleeding. We've tried friendly reminders, gently taking his fingers from his mouth, over-the-counter chemicals, and even Band-Aids covering the nails on all ten fingers. Nothing has helped and I'm worried he's going to get sick.
Any nailbiting advice the wonderful folks at Parent Hacks could suggest would be much appreciated.
Sigh. As adult nailbiters will tell you, nailbiting can be as persistent as thumbsucking. The good news is, at this age, you can talk to your child to gather some clues about the problem.
Why is he biting his nails?
Kids bite their nails for all sorts of reasons. For some, it just feels good. For others, it's an unconcious habit that calms anxiety or "the fidgets." (Many distractable kids are more able to listen when their hands or bodies are active. Biting one's nails fits that bill.)
Step #1 is a low-key, information-gathering chat. When does he bite his nails? When people are talking? When he's going to sleep? All the time? When he bites his nails, how does it feel?
An age-appropriate book may help here. When my son was little, the Berenstain Bears opened a conversation about his excessive throat-clearing.
Keep the tone light and non-worried; more curious, as in "Let's see if we can solve this mystery!" Also, asking why he bites his nails probably won't yield a useful response, so better to gather facts and come up with your own (flexible) conclusions.
If he really has no idea when he bites his nails (it could be mostly unconscious behavior), suggest a day or two of data collection. A little chart with checkboxes could be fun way to increase his awareness and help him feel more in control of the situation.
Brainstorm temporary "replacement" behaviors that solve the problem.
If it's the physical "feel good" he gets from nailbiting, how about some gum? If he needs something to keep his hands busy, how about a squishy ball or toy he can keep in his pocket?
Track progress, reward improvement, note problems, tweak.
Again, having something tangible can really help kids "see" their improvement. Star charts, checklists…one Parenthacker even suggested using a homemade jigsaw puzzle to reward gradual improvement.
Hopefully this will give you a boilerplate for breaking any bad habit.
Parenthackers: How did you help your child to stop nailbiting?