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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