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Children and adolescent therapists estimate that around ten percent of all children and adolescents in Germany suffer from fingernail chewing syndrome. Parents often prohibit their children from chewing their fingernails under the threat of sanctions, possibly exacerbating the problem. It is better if parents and educators research the causes and show constructive coping strategies to the child. Because chewing your fingers is often an emotional outlet.
Not only children and teenagers chew on their fingernails. The phenomenon can also be observed frequently in adults. Most of the time, those affected chew their nails due to an inner restlessness or tension and are under constant stress. Sometimes, however, there are also banal causes such as “boredom”, as social worker Gritli Bertram reports. However, parents should not respond to chewing their nails with punishments and sanctions. “Rather, it is important to research the causes and understand the children,” says Bertram. Penalties, on the other hand, "are completely contraindicated, they can create even more stress for those affected" and thus increase the chewing of fingernails, warns the social worker from Hanover.
Chewing fingernails is one of the body-related behavior disorders. It is not uncommon for chewing the nails to be accompanied by other behavioral problems such as hair pulling or skin picking. The symptoms are both psychological and physical in nature. People who chronically chew their nails often also suffer from:
- distressing feelings of discomfort or tension,
- Relief or pleasure after chewing fingernails,
- Feelings of shame, embarrassment or guilt,
- Tissue damage to fingers, nails and cuticles,
- Mouth injuries,
- Dental problems,
Chewing fingernails occurs in early childhood
The foundation stone for the disorder is usually laid in infancy. In the first years of life, the oral fixation (oral phase) is still very pronounced. In stressful situations, some children tend to chew on their nails to find a balance. What begins as harmless chewing can later turn into a ritualized act in stressful moments. In conventional medicine, nail biting is also called "onychophagia". "In many cases, nail chewing is a harmless and time-limited habit that goes away on its own," said Ulrich Gerth, chairman of the Federal Conference on Educational Counseling (Bke) in Mainz recently. "It is important that parents do not become restless when the children chew their nails." Before countermeasures are taken at first signs, parents and educators should first observe the behavior of the children. The observers should ask themselves the following questions: When does the child chew on the nails, in what periods and in which specific situations?
Chewing nails is a strategy to balance stress and anger
The actual causes of nail biting can be very diverse. There is often an inner tension. Sometimes there is also a lack of self-confidence behind chewing. Other reasons are more acute and can usually be found in the child's social environment. Recent studies show that almost every second child in Germany suffers from school stress. School problems, grade stress and bullying by classmates could also be a major cause. Children chew their fingers and distract themselves from anger and stress. "You get other thoughts," says Bertram. In addition, chewing “relieves stress and relieves inner restlessness”.
Turn off nail biting together
If chewing continues for a long time, parents should contact the school and social workers. If it becomes clear that the child has acute mental problems, parents should seek to talk to their child. The conversation should not be about chewing as such, but about the child's causal problems. It is best if parents try together with the child to develop a suitable solution strategy. If the problems subside, it is easier for the children to stop chewing their nails. Under no circumstances should children be put under pressure. House arrest or a television ban are completely wrong approaches and put children in further stressful situations. A reward system is better, explains social worker Bertram. “There is a little bit of attention for every week without chewing your fingernails. It can be ice cream or a joint visit to the cinema. "It is also advisable to play with it:" Take care of your child's nails with a bath or a great cream, "recommends Gerth. If another millimeter of fingernail is added, the child should receive praise and recognition. In particularly difficult cases, however, children chew their fingernails down to their own flesh. At the latest, outpatient therapy with a resident child and adolescent therapist is required.
Measures against chronic nail biting
In some cases, behavioral therapy may be required. Measures that can help are, for example
- Stress reduction through relaxation methods,
- Coping with anxiety,
- Keep nails clean and short,
- Keep hands and mouth busy (e.g. chewing gum or playing a musical instrument),
- apply bitter varnish to the nails,
- Suppress chewing stimulus through another activity (e.g. kneading a stress ball).
Nail chewing risks
The nails are formed in the nail bed. As long as this remains intact, chewing your nails is unlikely to leave permanent damage to your fingernails. Nevertheless, constant chewing on the nails involves several health risks. Chewing, for example, causes small skin injuries through which pathogens can penetrate. At the same time, the hands are often brought to the mouth, causing bacteria and viruses to get from the fingers into the mouth. Overall, this increases the risk of infectious diseases. In addition, permanent damage to the teeth can occur. (sb, vb)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- American Academy of Dermatology: How to stop biting your nails (accessed: September 27, 2019), aad.org
- Pierre Halteh, Richard K. Scher, Shari R. Lipner: Onychophagia: A nail-biting conundrum for physicians, Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 2017, Volume 28, Issue 2, tandfonline.com
- Lawrence E. Gibson: Does nail biting cause any long-term nail damage? Mayo Clinic (accessed: September 27, 2019), mayoclinic.org
- Archana Singal, Deepashree Daulatabad: Nail tic disorders: Manifestations, pathogenesis and management, Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, 2017, http://www.ijdvl.com