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Breaking a Finger-Biting Habit, One Cuticle at a Time

One mom’s quest to cure her son’s nail-biting — and her own

Published on: July 29, 2019


“Mama! Don’t bite!” my 3-year-old scolds in a voice 10 times bigger than he is, snapping me out of my mindless gnawing. Doh — he’s caught me again!

I guiltily remove my finger and pick up my stress ball. Seconds later I notice him chowing down on his thumbnail and hand him a ball that matches mine. We squeeze them in synchronization. This is us, watching television.

My son has been a nail-biter since we took his pacifier away (he started biting through the silicone). He nibbles them so short that sometimes a Paw Patrol Band-Aid is all that saves him from a full-blown meltdown: “Mama, it HEWRTS!”

I get it, because I’m in the same boat. Even worse, I also pick my cuticles into a constant state of raw raggedness. I know — it’s gross. If only knowing that were enough to make me (us) stop. Quitting is much more complicated, but we are finding a way through this challenge, together.

Psychologists advise that before attempting to curb a habit you need to address the root of it. I don’t have to look far to assign blame for my onychophagia (chronic nail-biting): I have anxiety, and biting is my go-to tension reliever throughout the day.

Genetics may play a part (my mom is a reformed nail biter). Also, I drink a lot of coffee, and, at least until Mr. Morning Sunshine stops jumping out of bed every day at 5:30 a.m., that’s not going to change.

My son bites most when he is relaxing (watching TV, riding in the car, listening to a story). Whether he’s biting to help relax or because he is relaxed, I’m not sure yet. It will help when he can tell me how he feels. I’m quite confident he’s not knocking back the java when I’m not looking (although, that would explain a lot). As for the genetics and setting a bad example: mea culpa.

But, reasons or not, my skin crawls when I think of all the germs, so I’ve been researching ways to conquer this habit. Here is some of the most common advice you’ll find out there:

Keep nails trimmed and short: Hmm, well, we’re both doing a good job of that already (om nom nom).

Nasty-tasting polish: I haven’t tried this (yet), but given my son’s love of strong flavors (aged Stilton before he was 2), it’s entirely possible he might actually enjoy the taste.

Silly putty: Our couch isn’t “nice” — definitely not as nice as it was before the cats, dog, teenager and toddler got to it — but I still don’t relish the thought of trying to scrub silly putty off of it.

Worry stone: Maybe this would work for an older child, but since my son’s only use for rocks right now is as projectiles, nope.

Reward system: This hasn’t worked for anything else with my strong-willed lad (and believe me, we have promised him the moon and beyond for things like potty training, staying in bed later than 5 a.m., etc.).

Gentle reminders: Mentioning it when we notice him biting just makes him annoyed. He starts biting with renewed zeal out of spite (remember, strong-willed), and that’s not helping anyone.

Natural consequences: This one works … until he forgets about the pain and dives in for another round.

What to do? Well, as with many answers in life, this one came unexpectedly.

“Mama, what happened to your finger?” my son gasped one morning, noticing the Band-Aid I was wearing.

“I bit it. And it bled. And now it hurts.”

“Ohhhhhh,” he intoned, full of understanding and empathy. Then, “Why you do that?”

Instead of brushing his question aside, I got real with him. I shared that sometimes I feel worried and that biting my fingers makes me feel better inside, but that I don’t like how it makes my fingers feel. He nodded, wide-eyed, soaking it all in, agreeing that, yes, it really sucks when you bite your nails too far. For the first time, I sensed that he wanted to stop.

It occurred to me that, instead of me imposing an expert-touted solution, maybe my son had some ideas of his own. He suggested the “squishy” (aka stress) balls. It actually does help to have something to fidget with when we’re feeling the urge, and I’ve stashed several balls around the house and in the cars for easy access.

I’m frustrated with myself for having this habit, and feel guilty as I watch my son struggle with it, too. But, I’m also a teensy bit grateful. I’ve learned that I don’t need to maintain a pretense of perfection in order to teach him how to tackle challenges. In fact, being honest, vulnerable and imperfect with my son helped to invite him into the problem-solving process.

Trying not to become frustrated with my son when he bites his nails also reminds me to be kinder to myself. It would be fantastic if we could conquer this together, but now at age 42 and a capable, fully functioning adult (who has miraculously never had a finger infection), I do accept that there are worse things in life than being a nail-biter.

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