In Defense of Nail Biters

The Grasshopper has started biting her nails.  She started while I was pregnant, and it’s clear that she’s not going to stop any time soon.  Her dad finds this to be vexing.  He gripes.  He tells her to stop.  He takes her hand out of her mouth.  He’s even started talking about getting some of that nasty tasting nail polish.

He doesn’t understand.  He was never a nail biter.

But I was.  Oh, did I bite my nails.  I bit them right down to the quick.  I bit them until they bled.  When I ran out of fingernail, I would chew the skin around the edges of the nails.  Then I would chew up the inside of my lips.  Then I would bite my toenails.  Yeah, I know.  Gross.  Don’t pretend like you didn’t do gross stuff as a kid.  You know you did!

The nail biting was a compulsion.  I couldn’t stop.

We tried everything.  My Grandma promised me a beautiful ring when I stopped biting my nails.  Didn’t work.  Later, we tried painting my nails with bitter nail polish.  I bit them anyway.  I tried painting my nails with pretty nail polish so they’d be too pretty for me to bite.  I learned to carefully scrape off  the nail polish so I could access the nails beneath and resume biting.  Bandaids over the nails?  Peeled them off, bit, and then carefully stuck them back on again.  Every single trick that they recommend, we tried.  Many of those attempts were attempts I made myself.  It’s not like my parents were harassing me to stop biting my nails or anything.  They had given up on that years ago.

The nail biting was absolutely outside my control.  The more I tried to stop it, the more I chewed.  When I got anxious I chewed.  The attempts to quit made me anxious.  Having adults notice and point it out made me anxious.  All of that fed into the cycle.  Nail biting was just something I did and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.  Then I just… stopped.

There was nothing I did to stop.  I just woke up one morning and no longer had the need to bite.  I still felt stressed about things (who doesn’t?) but because I was developmentally ready to stop, the need to chew disappeared and it no longer served as a comfort measure to deal with anxiety.

For me the need to chew disappeared when I was 17 years old.  For some people I think it comes sooner.  For others later.  For a few people, the need never disappears.  And you know what?  Who cares?

Now that the Grasshopper is older and biting her nails, what is the big deal?

I see parents agonizing over this on various parenting message boards, and I’d like to really examine the reasoning for wanting so badly for their kids to stop biting.  Let’s break this down:

  • It looks ugly.  So what?  They are her hands.  If someone is going to judge her based on her fingernails, they’ve got bigger issues than she needs to deal with anyway!  Chewed finger nails aren’t going to keep her from a career in a professional setting.  Unless she applied for a hand modeling gig.  In which case we would probably have a conversation about what her strengths really are.
  • It can be painful.  Oh, yeah.  Chewing down to the quick definitely hurts.  Does it ever!  Part of this is responsibility.  If she’s going to chew, she needs to be prepared for the consequences, and that means that some days her fingers might be sore.  It goes with the territory.  But is it really a huge deal?  I bit my nails until they bled, but it never kept me from enjoying activities.  I just had to take responsibility for what I had done and let them heal for a day or two.
  • What if she gets germs?  Well, she might, but so might a lot of other kids.  She will need to be able to keep her hands washed frequently to keep from spreading or catching any illnesses.
  • If she bites them too far, they could get infected.  It could happen.  Never happened to me, but sure.  It could happen.  We’ll just have to keep an eye on it and enforce the hand washing.
  • It’s a “bad” habit.  Like what?  Like smoking?  Not really.  It’s not causing long term effects.  It’s not hurting anyone.
  • It bugs me.  (This is my husband’s gripe.)  Then you really just need to use your neck and look the other way.  Sorry if I sound a little defensive on that one, but as a long-term nail biter, this particular line of reasoning really gets under my skin.

Look, here’s the thing: No amount of us harping on her, offering rewards, putting tabasco sauce (thanks for that idea internet. gross.), or threatening is going to stop her from biting her nails.  She can’t control it, and if we bug her about it we will just be feeding into the anxiety cycle.  Some day, she will probably grow out of it, but in the meantime, there’s no major harm being done.

See? I stopped. They don't look too bad do they?
See? I stopped. They don’t look too bad do they?

So please, if you have a kid who bites his or her nails, just leave them alone and let them grow out of it on their own.  The more you push, the more they’ll bite.  Please don’t feed the cycle.

So how about it?  Are there any other nail biters out there?   Any parents of nail biters?  I’m interested to hear your story and find out if you (or your child) eventually stopped biting and how it happened.

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13 thoughts on “In Defense of Nail Biters

  1. I bit my nails compulsively (and unstoppably!) until I was in my mid-twenties. As did the writer, I also quit abruptly, almost literally overnight, and now have perfectly normal nails other than the usual nicks and cracks that a long and active life will inevitably leave behind. Given that I am the biological father of the writer and grandfather of Gabi, and had stopped nail-biting long before either was even a sparkle in my eye, I suspect the compulsion has a strong genetic component independent of any social factors. Parental attempts to stop the nail-biting are likely to make the child feel guilty and self-conscious while having few if any positive outcomes. Time will heal.

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    1. Interesting to know that I’m not the only family member who chewed and then stopped overnight. And yes, I believe that any attempt to stop the biting can often amount to shaming which serves no purpose except to belittle the child. To be clear, many of my attempts to stop were ones I tried on my own, but it’s difficult to know if I did so out of self-consciousness over adults trying to get me to stop. I don’t really recall any of my parents hassling me about it, but other adults in my life certainly did.

      Also, Hi Daddy! *waves*

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  2. I never bit my nails… I was always funny about things in my mouth and even seeing other people biting on things (my husband does this all the time, he never grew out of it) makes me want to heave. But that is MY issue, not theirs, and I know it!

    I have my own habits related to anxiety… I pick at dry skin on my lips which I get often thanks to getting dehydrated quite easily. I have often made my lips bleed before I realised what I was doing. And even then I can’t always stop it. And I also pull on my eyebrows, so hard I often pull some out. My mum hates it when I do it, but it is an anxiety thing – you should have seen the state of my eyebrows by the end of my pregnancy, half of them were missing. They have only just grown back.

    So although I never bit my nails, I get where you’re coming from. I also get what Juan is saying too!

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  3. They don’t always grow out of it. My husband is 35 and his fingers bleed almost daily because he bites/picks at them. Our oldest daughter is following in his foot steps and he tries to correct her. When I’ve asked him about it, he says he doesn’t want her to end up like him.

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  4. Former nail biter, who now has such strong and nice natural nails now that she often gets asked if they’re fake, here.

    Rina bites her nails. Mia lets hers grow out to ungodly lengths and constantly has crud under them, which she fights me about cleaning out. I’d much rather have the biting to deal with than the crud-nails.

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  5. Nail bitter in remission due to false nails. I also bit my nails due to anxiety and my Mum tried many things to help me stop. I couldn’t either and also suffered comments from others as teenager and adult. When I had my first child I actually stopped for a while because my hands where so busy but it slowly returned. I had to turn to false nails to stop the habit and Yes I do feel so much better about showing my hands. My eldest is a lip picker and sucker and my younger a nail bitter. It does pain me to see them display the same traits but I am determined not to shame them but to offer help if they need or want it.

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  6. I bit my nails compulsively until one day when I was in, I think, 5th grade, I just stopped. Easy, peasy. Like you, when I didn’t need to any more, it was easy to stop. And I stopped biting my toe nails, too. ;0)

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  7. I was a nail biter too….fingers and toes. Man, I have the best memory of watching CHiPs on TV and munching my toenails with a box of MinuteMaid apple juice at my side. Anyway, my mom tried to use the gross nail polish and I just ate it clean off. Then it was the promise of gifts if I stopped biting. No go. Finally I just stopped. I think I was about 8. My hands…and feet, are just fine. I wouldn’t have an issue should William start biting his nails.He’ll stop someday. Or maybe he wont.

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  8. I was a nail bitter big time. I used to get fake nails & that would temporarily stop it until I broke a nail or had them removed then I would go right back to bitting. I finally did stop (mostly) bitting by accident, I was doing some work with a holistic practitioner called NET it works on emotional stuff & then one day I just noticed that I had nails & hadn’t been bitting. I haven’t been bad in years, but if I break a nail sometime I start some light bitting. I also still chew my lips & inside of my cheeks. FWIW- my son picks at his nails & picks at his lips, my dad pulls at his eyebrow so much that part of it is gone

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