I had just finished my talk on ‘Behaviour problems in children’ at one of the upmarket schools. Nail biting was one of the problem discussed and I had mentioned insecurity and anxiety as one of the key causes of the same, when a young mother got up and said…
“I don’t agree with you. My 3 yr old son bites nails but he is definitely not insecure. He is well-adjusted and a very happy child. No reason for him to be insecure, I have taken a break from work after he was born to ensure that I do everything possible for him”.
“Please tell me when does he bite nails? When he is sent to play school? When there are strangers at home? When he is out with other kids?”
“Actually very rarely in front of me; others in the family tell me. I never thought about when he bites more? Let me think…”
“When you are going out leaving him behind?” I prodded.
“I can only go out when he is sleeping. And be back before he gets up or he will create a ruckus. You see, he is very attached to me. More than his dad!” (The last with a smile on her face)
“So, how does he react when his dad returns home?”
“He doesn’t like my attending to him. He says ‘Mom, You play with me. Dadi will give water to dad’. If I spend some time talking to my husband, he starts crying.”
“That is the insecurity! He is scared of being without you” was my answer.
Nail biting in children (or even adults) is largely due to fear, anxiety or insecurity. Some children may bite nails because of boredom – whatever be the reason, nail-biting (or thumb-sucking) is a CALMING habit.
Calming habits usually start in infancy/toddler age group. Whenever a child is uncomfortable (no one around, hunger, anxiety etc) any repetitive activity has a calming effect (mother putting the child on her lap and moving her knee rhythmically/gentle swing of a cradle).
What may cause a child to be insecure?
Being away from parents for long periods, loud voices (arguments) in the house and early weaning!
Why early weaning, you may wonder!
One of the several advantages of breast-feeding is that it promotes bonding between mother and infant. Infant learns to depend on/enjoy the comfort /calming effect the period of breast-feeding provides. If breast-feeding is not possible, for whatever reason, the mother does NOT always handle bottle-feeding as she has literally millions of other chores to handle and for the person handling the bottle it is another of the chores; lo and behold the kid has lost only one calming activity available at that age!
Rules better be followed:
- Accept the fact that your little one may be anxious/insecure, engaging in nail-biting, thumb-sucking, head banging or any of the other habit disorders.
- Initiate a planned exercise to identify what may be the trigger and create a strategy to handle the issue
- Take note of what is happening around your loved one when the fingers are put in the mouth.
- Are you the cause of such anxiety/insecurity?
- If trigger is identified, is it possible to change it?
- In most cases, you may not be able to identify it but a strategy can always be created; following steps would still help.
Handling the child:
- Choose a time to bring up the topic when the child is feeling healthy and happy. (all these start in infancy and it has been a few years till your child is big enough for you to reason with)
- Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect the nail-biting habit (or any other habit) to be given up immediately. (would you be able give up a comforting habit of smoking, drinking or even crooning immediately?)
- Eliminate any chaotic situation/scene around the child.
- If you can place mirrors so that the child can see him/herself engaged in the act, it definitely helps.
- Don’t talk about it when the child is biting nails.
- Never discuss it in front of other. Never say ‘he is so big and still bites nails’ – you would be fuelling the anxiety. Children expect their parents to be proud of them; being overly negative will be counter productive.
- Don’t focus on it when your child has just experienced a frustration.
- Don’t punish the child for engaging in nail biting.
- Don’t authoritatively demand that the child stops nail biting.
- Don’t try to stop the nail-biting by slapping the hand away.
A strategy that involves several steps with intermediate rewards is more likely to be effective at breaking such a habit.
Why insecurity in this particular, well-adjusted child?
Something akin to sibling rivalry, which is spoken about a lot. You must have noticed all and sundry asking a second time pregnant mother ‘I hope you have prepared Rohan?’ (or Roshni as the case may be).
Children who perceive that attention given to them is taken away do not like the person responsible especially when it happens when all attention is focused on them. Imagine a mother who is feeding the child, suddenly hand it over to the servant/M-I-L since her tired husband is home after a grueling day and it keeps happening every day – you can understand what the child will feel the moment bell rings ominously announcing the arrival of father?
How I advised B (my eldest daughter) to avoid this as R (my S-I-L) time of arrival coincided with B feeding 20-month-old N (my angel )?
Upon arrival Rishi would join them, feed a morsel or two to Nishtha. Make Nishtha give him one. Then Bhavna would ask Nishtha, “Nishtha, I will go for five minutes to give Papa Tea?”. After 3-4 days, when Rishi entered, Nishtha said “Mama, Papa come. You go.”
We have to start talking to children as if they are grown ups and half the miseries would be over.
Dr Chander Asrani, father to three daughters and grand father to one, is a post graduate in Family Medicine. He has over 35 years in clinical practice, launched www.growingwell.com in 2000 and since then has been writing on various subjects. Know more about him at about.me/drasrani.