Here’s an e-mail I just received:

When our son Levon started at North Toronto Early Years Learning Center on Bedford Park Ave we attended your excellent parenting course. (By the way congratulations to your new TV-show.)

In the meantime Levon has graduated from pre-school and is now an enthusiastic JK student. He is a very active, happy boy with whom we have not been experiencing major issues. However, Levon started nail biting and picking before the summer break. He does it practically anytime, anywhere except when his hands are busy with something else. For example: He does it during his Taekwondo class, listening to the instructor as well as while watching TV.

We tried:

  • explaining that his fingers could start hurting if he continued;
  • telling him it doesn’t look nice;
  • promising $1 per nail which grew back the white to put into his piggy bank;
  • brush-on stuff with a bitter taste; band-aids.

Nothing made a difference. His pediatrician suggested giving him something to keep his hands busy (small balls, elastics etc.) whenever the nail biting occurs. This stops him for the moment but isn’t always suitable.

From the medical point of view Levon is not a bad case, i.e. his nails aren’t (yet) infected or so. Levon is aware of the fact that he should not be nail biting and seems to be a little bit embarrassed about it. Nevertheless he seems to be unable to stop this habit.

How can we help him?

Here’s my reply:

The first thing to remember is that he has a behaviour which he can’t seem to stop.

It sounds like it is embarrassing him now, and he may be interested in stopping, but he is so habituated that he feels it is out of his control. You want to be on his side as he tackles his problem, rather than feeling like you need to discipline him for this. There is a Berenstain Bear book called the Bad Habit(although he might find it too juvenile) that might help.

Nail biting, hair twirling, and the like are all self-soothing behaviours, They act to calm him. You can show him others ways, but you can also look to see why he is suddenly more anxious that he needs to soothe himself like this. Did anything happen this summer?

Anxiousness is our fear of revealing our inadequacies, so encouragement will help. Reinforce the ideas that it’s about effort and improvement rather than perfection. Sometimes the nibbling is to make a “perfect” edge for the perfectionist, but ironically, clearing the rough edges by nibbling makes the edge worse and so it goes!

Read the article on thumb sucking and see how that similar problem was handled.

Work with him, not against him. That’s the big point I want to make. I hope that is helpful. Let me know how it goes!


About the author

Alyson Schäfer is a psychotherapist, parent coach and popular public speaker. She teaches parent education classes and works with parents one-on-one in her parent coaching practice.

Alyson is called on regularly by the media as a parenting expert. She has been featured in articles in Today’s Parent, Chatelaine, and Reader’s Digest. She has also been interviewed by the CBC and has appeared on TV shows like Planet Parent,Agenda, Health on the Line, W-Live with Erin Davis, and the CHCH Morning Show.

September 25, 2005, in Habits
Article re-published with permission,