Biting Nails

A really common sensory question that I get is “How can I stop my kid from biting/picking their nails or skin around their nails?” or sometimes even, “How can I stop doing it?”

Ever since I was small I have bitten and picked at my nails and the skin around them. My parents tried everything from cueing me, to various behavioral interventions, to putting bitter nail polish on them, etc. None of it ever stuck for long, if at all.

As an adult, with my own internal motivation, I decided that this was something that was truly important to me and that I was going to stop. I had already stopped biting my fingernails when I had a palate expander as part of dental work as a teen, when I became physically unable to do so. To me, that was proof that I ought to just stop. I tried behavioral interventions on myself: bribing myself, punishing myself. I tried reading others’ stories and recommendations. I tried raising my level of conscious awareness, so that I wouldn’t do it without thinking about it. All of these things helped slightly, and I tried as hard as I could. My fingers were still pretty well picked apart.

I had a good couple of weeks. Followed by a bad couple of weeks. I had made so much progress and I was sure that if I could just stop picking for [x] amount of time, it would help me stop entirely. Then I went through a stressful patch and tore them to shreds.

I switched tactics entirely. I put bandaids on all the fingers that needed it. I let them heal. I gave myself permission to lie about it if people asked — I told them that I had burned my fingers in a cooking accident. I let myself heal and began letting myself let go of the shame I’d felt and not even realized I was feeling.

I began keeping nail clippers at easy reach at all times — in my car and purse and at work and at home. I tried to clip the nails or skin every time that they bothered me even slightly. I kept up my routine of bandaging ones that got bad or were on the verge of it. I carried a fidget in my pocket so I wouldn’t pick out of boredom (as opposed to anxiety or the skin feeling “wrong”). That also helped me — identifying the different reasons why I was doing it instead of lumping it all together. I was able to target and change the “boredom” and “need for movement” picking. This freed me to let go of my strong feelings around the types of picking as well.

There are different types of needs expressed by skin or nails biting or picking. It might be a need to bite; it might be a need to smooth out the nails; it might be an anxious outlet. There is no one size fits all solution to these. Biting can only substitute for other biting, but giving me something to bite would never have helped with my need to smooth out the rough nails; only nail clippers could do that (or a file, or whatever). Some people even have a need for the prickly mild pain of biting or picking or having bitten or picked — sometimes the prickly side of Velcro can be a substitute for that. The fidget pictured, a poky ring that provides lots of prickly pressure, has been an amazing substitute for that for me. If dry skin is a frequent cause of biting or picking, lotion or cuticle oil may help. For people who can tolerate wearing nail polish or fake nails, those can help sometimes. And for those who can tolerate bandaging that can help too, especially when bodies need time to heal.

I’ve finally come to a point where I’ve let go of my shame around just not being able to try hard enough, or pay attention hard enough, to stop. I don’t lie about my band-aids anymore if someone asks. I actually often find it to be a good conversation to have. More than once I have talked with a kid about how they themselves are not “making bad choices” for picking at their skin or nails. More than once I have surprised an adult with my candor about how this experience is for me. I keep a fidget on my keychain and take it out and fidget with it during meetings. I let people see me meeting a movement need.

I’ve got a band-aid today and a chewed-up finger and a fidget in my pocket for good measure. It may not be the ideal in a perfect world. But it’s functional and I can manage it myself with no difficulties. Sometimes, it’s fine for things to land there.

[Image description: A close-up of my hand, with a band-aid on the thumb and different layers of bitten skin around my index and middle fingers, on a table, as well as a fidget cube, a wire fidget ring, and a pair of nail clippers. End description.]