Parents Are Advised Not to Punish Nail-Biters

Nail-biting is an unsightly habit affecting one to 10 fingers on an average set of hands. It isn't a serious health threat.

Like knuckle-cracking, lip-biting, playing with hair strands or cracking chewing gum, nail-biting is simply a habit, a repetitive pattern resulting from pressures or anxiety.

Nail-biting has its roots in infancy. Children are weaned from the bottle or mother's breast and often resort to thumb-sucking. Nails and fingers are a natural substitute for these early oral comforts.

Parents should not be alarmed when young children bite their nails. Like many habits, it is often an unconscious response to stress. Parents should focus on the underlying causes of the stress and help the child through these issues.

Aside from determining the cause, success in treating the symptom--the actual biting--depending on the child's age can be handled effectively by a few simple guidelines.

For parents of very young children (under the age of 6 or 7), the best advice is to do nothing; nail-biting at this age is common, and in most cases, the child will grow out of the behavior.

And like bed-wetting, this behavior should not be punished.

When a child reaches the age of 7 or 8--the "age of cooperation"--parents may appeal to the child's new sense of responsibility when addressing the behavior.

Be imaginative and look for ways to encourage the child to make changes in this habit. Get the child interested in new activities such as painting, reading or outdoor play and allow him or her to focus excess energy in more creative and constructive ways.

As the nail-biter gets older and approaches early adolescence, parents may try resorting to reason. Telling the child that his or her nails look unsightly or that they may be ribbed by friends, may inhibit the urge to bite.

During this period, children normally become more concerned with appearance, which may also help curb the habit.

Nail-biting can remain with individuals throughout adulthood. Like cigarette smoking, the oral gratification may be a hard temptation to pass up.

There are several commercial substances available to help those who cannot help themselves. These foul-tasting potions are applied directly to fingertips and are designed to keep people from putting fingers into the mouth. However, the success rate for these products is mixed and is comparable to that of most diet regimens.

Nail-biting is like any other habit. The best way to overcome the behavior is to recognize it and, with patience and discipline, overcome the urges.

The result? Hopefully, more beautiful hands and fingers.

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