To some people, nail biting can seem to be a habit that is easy to break. However, it turns out that this habit, if got into at an early age, can transform into the habit of a lifetime. Children and teenagers are prone to nail biting, as the phases of life they experience sometimes force them to develop it. Why do some children bite their nails? And what strategies are there to help the child get out of it?
A mere habit?
Technically, nail biting is not a habit – it is a disorder called onychophagia. It is classified as one of the common parafunctional habits. Among other habits of this kind are grinding teeth, pencil chewing, digit sucking, and mouth breathing. As the name of the habit class suggests, all of them imply using the mouth in an inappropriate way, i.e. other than eating, speaking, etc.
Nail biting is a body-focused, obsessive-compulsive repetitive disorder, the causes of which remain unknown. Researchers have long been speculating on possible causes, and it is now believed that nail biting lies within the domain of psychology, psychiatry and dentistry.
Possible causes of nail biting
Onychophagia can be caused by psychological instability, but it can be diagnosed even in psychologically stable individuals. The disorder usually manifests itself when a person is facing a difficult task or something else that induces stress. It is believed that nail biting is a kind of a coping mechanism that can help reduce stress, and many nail biters, should they try to refrain from it, experience even more distress.
Another possible cause, which is somehow related to the previous one, is boredom. Some nail biters do it when they have nothing to do, which can also be considered a stressful situation.
Interestingly, children born to families in which parents used to be nail biters are more likely to develop the habit, even if the parents had broken the habit before the child was born, so genetic predisposition to nail biting could be one of the causes too. Among other suspects are low self-esteem and even hunger.
A research carried out by scientists from University of Quebec showed that those with body-focused repetitive behaviors may be unwilling to relax and set high standards, so they bite nails out of frustration, boredom, impatience or dissatisfaction.
In children, any of these causes can be behind the habit, as character traits, such as perfectionism, are already there when the child is small, and such factors as genetic predisposition are with the baby since the day on which they were born.
Is nail biting dangerous?
Nail biting can affect health in different ways, but all of them are not that dangerous. The habit can lead to emotional suffering due to the fact that those children who bite their nails are sometimes humiliated, and social impairment can follow. Besides, there is a physical aspect of onychophagia impact: if nails are bitten, they are damaged, and thus bleeding can occur, as well as bacterial infections. Teeth are affected too: there can be malocclusions and cracks in the teeth. Other habit-related mouth problems may include gingivitis and temporomandibular disorders. The gastrointestinal tract is another system that becomes more vulnerable, because the risk of infections increases.
Strategy for breaking the habit
In many children, the problem resolves on its own. The disorder requires care when it is accompanied by comorbid disorders.
- Motivate your child. Explain why it is a bad habit. Simply prohibiting is not a good strategy.
- Provide emotional support. It’s no use being strict or aggressive: the key is to relieve stress, not induce it.
- Use special techniques. There are behavioral therapies aimed at helping a person break a habit. In some cases, replacing the repetitive movements with something else can prove to be effective.
- Using reminders and preventing the child from biting nails. You can ask your child to wear gloves for some time (it can be a part of some game, say, a costume), keep the child’s hands busy, or manicure the nails – the latter can be effective in girls.
Nail Biting; Etiology, Consequences and Management – Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Onychophagia as a spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorder – Medscape.com
The impact of emotions on body-Focused repetitive behaviors: Evidence from a non-treatment-seeking sample – ScienceDirect.com
A randomized controlled trial of a novel self-help technique for impulse control disorders: a study on nail-biting – Medscape.com