Nail biters are easy to spot. They may keep their hands clenched, point to things using a pen, or hold the pen so as not to show fingertips. They constantly inspect their nails for tears, file frantically, or produce nippers when no-one is looking. The results are obvious if their fingertips are on display. Or, of course, they may be chewing at their nails.
Why People Bite Their Nails
Nail biting is often blamed on “nerves,” or anxiety, or just a bit of nail that was demanding attention. An anxious expression is common while nail biting, but anxiety is not the cause – it’s the result of the action itself. People are fully aware that it’s an ugly habit, and most, if offered an instant cure, would gladly take it.
The habit often begins in childhood, probably in imitation of a relative. This irritates parents, who scold and – sadly – have even been known to creep up behind the child and surprise them with a smack on the hand. This is very unlikely to be effective, as it just increases anxiety and the person may become defensive and secretive about the nail biting habit. And once the habit is established, the biter often finds it hard to resist continual monitoring of their nails and dealing with any snags. It becomes a routine, a habit – a vicious circle of bite, anxiety, check nails, bite and so on.
If the fingernails are soft, they are more likely to split or tear during everyday activities. This attracts the biter’s attention, and the behavior begins.
Why is Nail Biting Undesirable?
Bitten fingernails are always unattractive. They can affect self-esteem and change social behaviour, and are the behavior is often associated with anxiety.
There is also a health issue, as bacteria, viruses, or bits of grime can become lodged under even the shortest nails. This leaves nail biters more prone to illness and infection.
How to Avoid Making Nail Biting Worse
Scolding, smacking or punishing a child, or complaining to an adult, will not stop the compulsion to bite nails. It will only increase the anxiety that accompanies it, and may make the person seek privacy if a nail appears to need biting. Worsened anxiety can lead to more nail biting.
Nail biting remedies like bitter aloes and paint-on bitter liquid do have a slight chance of working with children who have just started, but seems intrinsically unkind and authoritarian. Again, it can only increase anxiety, and adults will just wash it off, either deliberately or because they wash their hands frequently anyway.
What To Do To Stop Nail Biting
The first approach is to consider the health of the nails. If they are soft and prone to tear, bend back, or split, then a dietary overhaul might be in order, and advice can be sought.
Habits in childhood may disappear, unless they are replaced by an alternative. Nail biting can be a childhood habit which never became replaced and so persists. The most useful approach is to seek a replacement (or ‘displacement’) activity – one which is acceptable, even pleasant, and which is incompatible with biting the nails.
What is chosen depends on which of two forces is the stronger – the need for oral activity, or the need for the hand to have purposeful fidgeting.
If a person constantly chews gum or mints, sucks the end of the pen, or bites the lip, then the oral aspect is probably important. Here, a solution would be to increase the use of chewing gum (hopefully sugar-free), or – better – find a new activity. Examples might be sucking small pebbles or the occasional boiled sweet, very slowly eating individual peanuts, munching baby carrots, using lip salve, or drinking more water.
More common are manually-driven nail biters, with a need to fidget constantly with their hands. They may drum fingers on the table, make chains of paper clips, ‘ping’ rubber bands, doodle while on the phone, or frequently touch or scratch their faces. A helpful strategy here is to obtain a small toy with moving parts which can be a fidgeting object in various ways. Examples are ‘sputniks’ whose spikes can be pushed in and then they pop out, tiny cars or animals on wheels that can be spun around by the wheels, held in various ways, and raced along smooth surfaces. A small Rubik’s cube would do, but only for changing the surfaces rather than solving the puzzle. If these are cute, constantly to hand, preferably actually in the hand where possible, they should help to divert the fidgeting. They can be given a name, too.
Rules to Help the Methods Work
- Never be without the displacement object or oral activity, even when nails are looking good.
- Try to recognise when the biting is just about to start – consider an initial boost with bitters to attract immediate attention.
- Don’t buy beautiful hand ornaments, especially rings, too soon – not being able to wear them is punishment.
- Ensure that the diet is promoting strong nails.
Stopping biting fingernails is difficult, but possible with a strategy. It has benefits for appearance, self-confidence, social behaviour, and health, and is well worth the effort.