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A common problem often dismissed as a minor nuisance, nail-biting can be the result of repression that sits at the opposite pole of caustic yet sugary sweetness. Neither is in balance.
‘No amount of threats, bitter-tasting potions spread over his nails, distractions or promises of Playstation games will stop my six-year-old from nail-biting. He sometimes bites to the point that his cuticles are raw, red and even bleeding,’ said one mother. ‘I came to believe that he was biting his nails simply to get attention, so instead of getting angry with him (which had not worked), I tried ignoring the habit. Neither course of action had any effect whatsoever.’ THE PRIMAL ORIGIN AND SYMBOLOGY OF OUR NAILS When Cuddles the kitty puts her claws out, it’s a sure sign she means business and we need to beat a hasty retreat if we are to avoid being scratched. As primal people we attacked or defended ourselves with our nails. Today, in our ‘civilised’ society, scratching someone’s eyes out when annoyed, or wanting to spit nails, is not acceptable, but by painting our nails red, the traditional colour associated with anger, the subconscious link remains. Our nails, then, are associated with aggression. We have our claws out when we are on the brink of attack. We speak of people who claw their way to the top of a corporation, meaning that they do so with determination and aggression – or a predatory woman is described as getting her claws into some unsuspecting man. So what is happening when we bite off the very weapons we would normally be using to attack? Basically, we are disarming ourselves. This can translate as curtailing our ability to attack what is upsetting us – in so doing we are inhibiting our aggression and attempting to internalise our anger. By biting our nails, we destroy what could protect and defend us. CHILDREN ARE CONDUCTORS OF FAMILY EMOTIONS Children and animals often express what their parents or owners repress. Children who bite their nails may either be demonstrating their own suppressed aggressive feelings or have somatised their parent’s unexpressed emotions. Many of us find it hard to express our anger. We either bottle it up completely, or it builds up only to explode in seemingly random outbursts. There are few people who can calmly say: ‘My experience of what you are doing is hard for me to deal with. I feel angry because of … Can we talk about it?’ Children can adopt our manner of coping with anger. Often the more sensitive child may pick up on our anger and start acting out the emotions we are attempting to repress. In the resulting confusion between what is being said politely and what is being picked up emotionally (toxic discharge), children learn that suppression is the acceptable or expected way to behave when they are angry. EXAMINE YOUR OWN RELATION TO ANGER Do you suppress your anger, feeling that in trying to be a good person, expressing anger (unless it’s moral indignation) is not acceptable? Or do you withdraw from the situation – switching off when feelings of anger or intense irritation arise? Does anger convert to sulking for you? Do you find that rather than allow yourself to feel angry, you tend to rationalise the situation, believing that thinking, rather than feeling, is a better way to deal with the problem? Even just acknowledging that you might be angry and verbalising those feelings to a close friend can help reduce your own tension. STRESS AND NAIL-BITING The tension caused by attempting to repress our anger exacerbates our stress level. This causes further anxiety, which is relieved when we bite our nails. Habits relieve stress, but the guilt and avoidance of dealing with the underlying triggers then creates further stress, and so the cycle perpetuates itself. INTERNALISING AND SUPPRESSION Your child may literally want to scratch someone’s eyes out, but has been punished in the past for acting aggressively, or may simply have picked up that it’s unacceptable behaviour. As a result he learns to internalise the emotion and unconsciously resorts to biting his nails so that he cannot harm the person involved. Meanwhile, the anger surrounding the issue is literally ‘eating them up’. In a society where much attention has focused on bullying, children have little opportunity to react naturally and physically to the taunts of others for fear of reprisal. Much as they may want to get involved in a skirmish, fear of the reaction they may receive from teachers and parents limits them. So they have no way of dealing with the anger they feel, except to internalise it. It’s a case of ‘to be good involves going against my natural desire to retaliate’. In time what was a reaction to the stress of suppressing feelings of anger and frustration becomes a habit. All this repressed emotion needs some form of expression, and nail-biting provides a degree of relief. The trouble is that the habit then becomes a way of dealing with all forms of stress. This reaction to stress becomes established as a behaviour pattern, and even relieving the initial cause of the tension may not always cure what is now an ingrained response in the brain. GETTING HELP Nail-biting can progress into self-harming, an alarming habit that is on the increase, particularly among teenagers. Piercing, cutting, pulling out hair, skin picking and so on are all ways in which the mind attempts to take an extremely painful emotion and, through the visual and physical experience of pain, work through the feeling. If you feel that your child’s nail-biting has shifted into this behaviour, or if his fingertips are often bloody and it’s gone beyond simple nibbling of the nail, it’s time to seek professional help. WAYS TO HELP Cut down on the risk of infection by ensuring that the child’s hands are washed regularly, and keep the nails neatly trimmed to avoid the temptation to chew off ragged pieces. Much of the underlying need to nail-bite can be relieved through authentic verbalising of feelings, such as: ‘I sense you’re upset and angry about not being able to ..., would you like to talk about it?’ Simply recognising and acknowledging a child’s feelings helps the child to work through them, which in turn relieves stress and the need to bite. When he does want to talk, let him tell you all the negative impacts of his habit, such as being teased by other children, having sore fingers, making teachers angry, and so on. Chat about habits and why we do them. Spend some quiet time with your child, inviting him to share what is happening in his life. I’ve often found that while initially ‘How are things going?’ may be met with a one-word answer, once you are in a relaxed state together (going for a milkshake, doing a puzzle, etc.) a child will often spontaneously start sharing. This is your opportunity to encourage the child to verbalise his feelings, while you listen with a non-judgemental ear. The more a child can express his feelings without fear of being criticised, the more his tension will be released. Then discuss how you can work together to help him stop. By doing this, you are empowering him to work with the problem, so he is far more likely to be open to suggestions than if you tell him he ’has to, or else …’. Come up with a plan of action together, understanding that older children will probably want less parental supervision than younger children. The biggest thing, however, is to have the child feel part of the process of deciding how to deal with the problem. WHAT NOT TO DO Why anger won’t work. It can be irritating watching your child bite her nails, but getting angry and threatening/yelling won’t help. Why? Simply because you will only be increasing the anxiety/stress, which will trigger the need to bite even more. Painting the nails with bitter substances such as aloe. As a child I remember some children having a ghastly, bitter-tasting substance painted on their nails by their parents in an attempt to discourage nail-biting. As I recall, the method had little effect – any more than making the butt of a cigarette taste nasty would dissuade a smoker. Punishing your child. Remember that nail-biting is a response to stress caused by repressed anger. Punishment will only increase the anger/underlying cause, and create an emotional distance between you and your child. Possible plans of action could include: ■ A reminder from you when the child is biting: this could be verbal, such as a code word or phrase, or non-verbal, so as not to embarrass her in company – for example, a gentle tap on the shoulder. ■ Replacement strategy. Discuss another healthier habit to fulfil the need when the desire to bite arises – drinking a glass of water, chewing a carrot, etc. Sometimes telling oneself to do the diversion before the habit (delaying the gratification) removes the desire to bite. ■ Set aside certain times for not biting – mealtimes, watching TV, etc. ■ Suggest that the child takes time out during the day to relax and chill out by reading a book, watching clouds in the sky, or taking five deep breaths, holding them for a few seconds and then releasing them, at the same time feeling the stress flow out of her body. ■ Ask your child to become aware of what is happening when the desire to bite arises. Understanding the triggers can help her to be aware of when the urge will be greatest. Different solutions will work for different children. It may take time and patience to stop nail-biting – habits are learnt ways of dealing with stress, and consequently take time to change. However, in time, following the sugestions above should lessen the desire to bite.
She has authored several books, including The A-Z Guide to Common Habits, The Girl Who Bites Her Nails and the Man Who is Always Late, Finding Your Feet and Climbing the Beanstalk – the Hidden Messages Found in Best-Loved Fairytales. Ann has worked as a holistic practitioner, using Reiki and Footology. She teaches a number of workshops and is also an exhibiting artist. Ann has spent over 20 years studying the mind/body connection, with habits being her particular interest.
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