How do I get my child to stop picking at her nails?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

It can be difficult to coax a child to drop a habit like picking her nails. Sometimes kids abandon such habits on their own, but if you feel it's time to put an end to the nail-picking, here are some tips:

  • Explain gently why you don't like the habit, but don't repeatedly criticize your child. This may only exacerbate the unwanted behavior.
  • Encourage your child to play an active role in breaking the habit. Make it something that you work on together, as a team. 
  • Suggest a replacement for the habit—perhaps something unobtrusive the child can do with her fingers instead of picking them. 
  • Reward your child when she shows signs of breaking the habit. 
  • Be patient. Breaking a habit often takes a good deal of time!
Dr. Heather Wittenberg, PhD
Psychology Specialist

In a situation like this, the rule is: Don’t pay attention to it. If you do, you risk turning a harmless self-soothing strategy into a power struggle and a nasty habit. Self-soothing strategies are very personal little "quirks" that we all have. Other kids suck their thumbs or pick their noses. Right? Be glad she doesn’t do one of those things, which can be harder to tolerate!

She needs her little harmless thing that she does to help her wind down after a long day. It’s okay. In fact, you want her to be comfortable at home, with you, being herself. With something as harmless as this, you don’t want to point it out or make a big deal…just let her be comfortable "letting it all hang out" at home.

I’ve been re-reading Anna Freud recently. To my mind, she’s the theoretical “mother” of child specialists like Brazelton and Ginott. The youngest daughter of Sigmund showed the world how fantastically diverse childhood behavior is. She also helped us sympathize with the really difficult challenges inherent in being a child, with developmental changes and dilemmas around every corner.

They don’t have the mental capacity of an adult; not even close. They think completely differently. They’re always feeling incompetent and inadequate in this world full of grown-ups. And therefore, they need lots of temporary self-soothing strategies to simply get through the day. The bottom line is: Kids do weird things. Lots of those weird things are completely normal.

I know it can make you nuts, as a parent. In our house, so far, we’ve had to cope with thumb sucking, bottle dependence, compulsive belly-button exploration, absent-minded crotch-grabbing, and repetitive throat clearing. So when you see your daughter picking her nails, all you can do is take a deep breath, and look away. Continue on with whatever else you were doing. If need be, offer her something else to fiddle with, and see if she takes it. But she probably won’t…not for long, anyhow.

Unfortunately, I can’t help you "break" your daughter of the habit. In fact, the more you try to "break" her of it…the more she is likely to do it. Toddlers are amazing that way. They somehow find exactly what it is that makes you nuts….and do that. Sorry I can’t "fix" this one, but at least now you know it’s really common, and not to worry.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.