Dear Family Whisperer: We're All Nail Biters! What to Do?

When you see Hanna biting her nails, you're not just looking at your child. You're seeing your own childhood.
05/15/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Dear Family Whisperer,

I hope this question comes under family whispering! My 4-year-old, Hanna [name changed], is constantly biting her nails, and it drives me crazy. I do it, my hubby does it and my mum even does it! It is such a difficult habit to break! I've tried ignoring it totally. I've tried telling her she can bite her nails, but she must go into the bathroom (she would often just take herself to there to do it. LOL). I've tried telling her that I don't want to see her biting her nails, as she is hurting her little fingers.The bottom line is she knows I hate it, even if I allow it to happen and pretend not to be bothered. Would love to know your thoughts on this.

--Nail-Biting Mom

Dear Nail-Biting Mom,

If I dreamed up questions for this column, I couldn't have imagined a better one to illustrate the importance of focusing on the whole family! When you see Hanna biting her nails, you're not just looking at your child. You're seeing your own childhood. Perhaps you have memories of your mother biting her nails or kids teasing you as a teenager. You also married a nail-biter. No wonder it "drives [you] crazy."

You're already thinking like a parent and have taken several sensible steps: trying to ignore it, being careful not to shame Hanna, offering her a nail-biting space to limit the behavior. Now also try thinking like a family whisperer.

Instead of focusing solely on Hanna, reframe nail-biting -- rightfully -- as an issue that concerns all of you. Nail-biting runs in families. Some evidence points to a genetic component, but environment plays a role, too. Children absorb emotions and messages from their household. Hanna wants to be like the grownups she loves.

In the Mind of a Child Nail-Biter

In "Nail Biting: Mental Disorder Or Just A Bad Habit?" science reporter Amy Standen recalls the "exact moment" she started. "I was 6 years old, watching my mom get dressed for work. She paused to mull something over, chewing on a nail. My reaction: 'How cool! How grown-up! I think I'll try it.'"

Take on nail-biting as a family challenge. Set aside a time to sit down together. (If she's willing, include your mother, too.) Explain to Hanna (in your own words): "You know that Daddy and I get upset when you bite your nails. It's not only because we don't want you to hurt your fingers or get sick from the germs on your hands. It's because we all bite our nails, including Grandma."

Hanna isn't too young to understand that everyone has little "tricks" to comfort themselves when they need to relax. Maybe she has a stuffed animal or a "binky" she loves. Be honest: "For some people, biting their nails feels good. But it's a habit -- something we do without thinking--and that's why it's really hard to stop. Maybe we can help each other."

Recall your own experiences ("Grannie put yucky-tasting stuff on my fingers when I was little," "I used to hide in my closet, so no one would see me do it."). Encourage your husband and mother to participate as well. You might be afraid, as many parents are, of giving your little one "ideas" or drawing too much attention to nail-biting. But even at 4 -- as you point out -- she is already aware that you "hate it."

Discussing nail-biting as a family will not only take the spotlight and pressure off Hanna, it will broaden her vocabulary of ideas and emotions. Talking about times and circumstances when you tend to gnaw on your nails -- watching TV, after an argument, when you're worried, bored or tired -- will encourage her to be more aware of her behavior.

Together, brainstorm strategies that support habit-breaking. For example, distraction is a key component of self-control. How can you keep your hands busy? You might buy or make a "fidget toy" for everyone, like a squishy ball or homemade bean bag. Or perhaps there's a craft that all or some of you can try together. If Grandma is a knitter, she can teach the whole family.

Because nail-biting -- in an adult or child -- can be stress-related, also pay attention to what else is happening in and to your family. Problems at work, illness or any disruption to your normal routine can heighten everyone's sense of vulnerability. Instead of biting your nails, dial down the tension. Eat well, get enough sleep and exercise and make an extra effort to have more fun and down time.

Monitor your progress -- post a chart with each of your names -- and find ways to reward yourselves. Of course, strategies that work for one family member might not work for another. For example, a weekly manicure might not appeal to Dad! However, the way you take on this challenge is less important than the fact that you do it together.

One caveat: While warning signs, such as bleeding fingers, cuticles ripped raw and chronic infections, should be taken seriously, quitting should be Hanna's decision. Multiple studies link childhood anxiety disorders with parents' "intrusiveness" and unwillingness to allow children's independence. Thus, it's best to guide Hanna by being a power of example and give her opportunities to show how capable she is.

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email Check back next week to see if your question is featured! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: and follow @MelindaBlau.