Who Do Children Bite Their Nails?

Onychophagia, or nail biting, is a very common habit in children. In many cases, it persists even into adulthood. Why does it appear and what can we do about it? We teach you some tricks to avoid this bad habit.
Who Do Children Bite Their Nails?
María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez.

Written by Editorial Team

Last update: 04 July, 2024

Onychophagia, or nail biting, is a very common practice in children. In many cases, it can even be seen in adulthood. But why do children bite their nails?

This common habit can start as early as the age of three and is very difficult to get rid of. That’s why it’s not uncommon for adults to maintain this behavior.

Nevertheless, we need to try to prevent children from picking up the habit of biting and/or eating their nails.

Although it’s very common, onychophagia can have negative consequences in children. Biting nails can affect children’s development, their oral health, as well as their self-confidence.

Here we’ll explain why children bite their nails and some simple ways to help them get rid of this habit.

Causes and risks of nail biting

“Biting nails is a way to deal with the intense emotions of childhood”

Nail biting is not a disease, but a bad habit and compulsive act. That is, it isn’t done consciously, and there is no ulterior motive behind it such as getting attention from parents. Its root cause could lie in the habit of sucking one’s thumb that wasn’t entirely unlearned.

However, there could be other possible causes. Children can also develop this practice out of curiosity, boredom, imitation, habit, or as a means to relieve stress.

It’s a way of dealing with the intense emotions of childhood. If you notice this habit in your child moderately – in a way that your child doesn’t harm himself – or in a distracted manner, there is probably no cause for concern.

Who Do Children Bite Their Nails?

Most cases of onychophagia disappear with age, but it’s important for children not to acquire it in the first place as it involves a few risks.

The first one being that children may hurt themselves. These bites can cause infections in the gums, affect the development and growth of their teeth, and favor the appearance of warts.

Furthermore, these problems can lead to self-confidence issues due to aesthetic reasons.

How to prevent children from biting their nails

Children often get rid of this habit on their own. But if onychophagia drags on or is very annoying, there are some simple ways to help children get rid of it.

First of all, as parents, we need to be patient and understanding with our children.

Some tactics to counter onychophagia include:

“Eliminating a habit is not a matter of one day. You will need time, patience, and perseverance.”

  1. Don’t ground or punish the child. Unless it’s a conscious decision, it’s difficult for you to prevent your child from biting his nails. Punishing him for something that he doesn’t do consciously will be of little use.
  2. Try finding out the causes instead. No matter the remedy you use: if you don’t know the root cause of your child’s nail biting, you won’t manage to get rid of this habit. Talk to your child, explain to him the situation, and find out together how you can change this acquired practice. Furthermore, you need to pay attention to the situations that my trigger such behavior.
  3. Give him options. You can suggest alternative activities or relaxation techniques whenever he feels the urge to bite his nails. Besides distracting him and helping him ignore the urge, these new activities will help ease the tension and nervousness he feels.
  4. Try to get him to practice a sport. Since onychophagia is usually due to stress, physical activity can help keep this habit at bay. Additionally, practicing sports during childhood is as important as it is beneficial.
  5. Be very patient. Getting rid of a habit takes more than a day. It is a long and slow process that requires a lot of insistence and perseverance. Encourage your child to find better coping mechanisms to manage the impulses of onychophagia and show him all of your support.
Who Do Children Bite Their Nails?

When is it a cause for concern?

“If, besides nail biting, your child presents other nervous behavior, don’t brush it aside: take him to the pediatrician.”

It’s easy to underestimate onychophagia due to how common it is. In some cases, biting one’s nails can be a sign of excessive anxiety. If your child’s fingers are wounded or bloody, if he presents warts or infections, you should take him to the doctor for treatment.

Note that it is highly recommended for you to consult a pediatrician if this habit is accompanied by other nervous ticks and behaviors. For example, if you observe that he pinches his own skin, plucks his eyelashes and/or hair, or if his sleep patterns change.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.