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How to manage nail biting in children?

Q: My daughter is 4 years old and has been biting her nails and skin around it since last six months. First it seemed to be just a bad habit but it has gone from bad to worse with her doing it all the time. It has started affecting her diet too, she does not eat her dinner like she used to. I thought it was something she did more when she was shy, at some get togethers etc but it is getting out of hand. My husband seems to think it is not just a bad habit where we can say to her, don't do it and it will be sorted. My husband, his mum and his dad (deceased) all bite their nails. My husband says he does it as he thinks it is a nervous disposition and it is genetic since his fathers brother and sister do it too. He thinks that my daughter has inherited this nervous disposition and hence we need to treat it medically. My husband suffers from Colitis (stomach disorder) and though nail biting has not been its sole cause, it has contributed towards it, according to him. I want to find out what is the psychological and physical cause behind this habit? What can I do best to help my daughter discontinue this habit before it is too late? She is enthusiastic and full of life in her nursery, leading her friends etc, but in new surroundings, she takes time to settle in and is very shy and apprehensive. She starts school in January and is petrified of spiders and flies. I am hopeful you will help me find a solution to help her and make her give up the habit in time before she starts full time education.

A:To begin with, there is no known gene for nail biting. However, it is possible that the tendency to get anxious could be passed from father to child. It seems to me that your child's nail biting should be tackled in 3 or 4 different ways. If her father or other adults around her have the bad habit, she can pick it up just by imitation. So the first thing would be for them to avoid it. On the face of it, this would not be easy. You must explain to her that the habit would put off friends from getting close to her or playing games with her. When she listens to you and avoids nail biting for even one hour at a time, you can give her a small reward. If she gives in to her habit, tell her that you will have to withdraw some privilege (like watching cartoons on TV or listening to a bedtime story). Increase the praise and the rewards, if she remains strong willed and resists nail biting. In the old days, mothers and grandmothers would put some neem oil on the finger being sucked. The unpleasant taste would be associated in the childs mind with the behaviour. Gradually, she would give it up. If she is a little shy in a new situation, that is very natural. But instead of biting her nails, you must convince her that there are other ways of handling it. She could tell herself that it is OK and that she wont be scared. If you teach her some little prayer, she could say it to herself, silently, in a new situation and the worst few seconds would be over. It is also necessary to be with her at bedtime and to dispel her fears. No child is normally fond of spiders or flies, but there is no reason to be petrified of them. Perhaps, she has had some experience in her infancy which has left some fear in her, but all conditions can be treated, with affection and a common sense approach. For example, the song familiar to most preschools, 'Eensy- weensie spider' makes the spider playful and nice to watch. She could get over her fear of spiders in a month or two by singing that song and making drawings of spiders. Talk to the child and listen to her carefully. The important thing is to find out why she is anxious. Make sure that the servants in the house or neighbours who drop in have not said or done something to upset her. Let her play with 4 or 5 dolls and make up her own stories about them. Sometimes children will make the dolls go through what they are experiencing. If you observe quietly, you may be able to locate her reasons for being anxious. Do all this in a gentle, friendly and affectionate way and never with anger. Do not hit or punish her to get her to obey you. Take the child as a partner in this effort. Don't make the beginning of formal school the time marker for all her behaviours. Otherwise starting school could become something that she would be worried about. In any case, she should give up the practice of nail biting, which is only a reflection of an anxiety that she cannot talk about. Time, patience and love will make the best combination for the treatment.

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