By Mary Teresa Bitti
Nail-biting, hair-twirling and ““ yuck! ““ nose-picking: are you baffled by your child’s predilection for icky behaviours? You’re not alone. It’s very common for school-aged children to develop some kind of nervous behaviour. Why? When it comes to nail-biting and hair-twirling there are two likely possibilities (more on nose-picking later). “They may be overly stressed,” says Dr. Peter Nieman, a Calgary-based pediatrician, father of four and host of healthykids.ca. Think too many extracurricular activities, struggles with schoolwork, or bullying. “Talk to your child, find out what’s bothering her, and then help her work through it,” he suggests.
The second and often more typical explanation is that the behaviour helps the child relax. And this is a good thing. “It’s important for parents to realize these habits help release tension, and the child feels better doing it,” says Kitty Raymond, child behavioural specialist and owner-director of Raymond Parenting in Calgary. “It’s like an adult fiddling with a paper clip during an important board meeting. It helps moderate your nervous system.”
So, instead of getting angry or annoyed and trying to break your child of the habit you find off-putting, the goal should be to substitute other tension-reducing behaviours that aren’t so, well, disgusting.
THE UGLY TRUTH First, it’s nasty to watch. Gross. On the medical front, it hurts, may cause bleeding and, in extreme cases can lead to infection. That’s exactly what happened to Steven,* who started biting his nails when he was six. “His nails were so short that we started teasing, saying soon he’d work his way up to his elbows,” says his mother Dawn* of Oakville, Ont. “Then one of his fingers got infected and it swelled up to the size of his big toe. He was put on penicillin, and we ended up going to the doctor twice so he could cut the finger and squeeze out the infection.”
HOW TO KICK THE HABIT Rather than draw attention to the behaviour, when you see your child biting his nails, give him something else to do with his hands. Dawn, who tried everything from bribery to coating Steven’s nails with bitter-tasting clear nail polish designed to get kids to stop biting their nails, finally found success with a stress ball. “He just needs something to do. He’s 13 now, and the stress ball is his thing.”
THE UGLY TRUTH Probably the most socially acceptable of the three habits, this tends to be a girl thing, but some boys do it, too. It usually starts innocently with twirling but can escalate to pulling and bald spots. Compulsive hair pulling is a disorder called trichotillomania or TTM, and if you’re worried that your child has it, you should consult a doctor.
HOW TO KICK THE HABIT Keeping the hair short usually does the trick. “They’ll do it less if there’s not as much hair to twirl,” says Raymond. If you don’t want to cut off those luxe locks, try putting the hair in a ponytail or braids.
THE UGLY TRUTH The grossest of the three, nose-picking is unhygienic and can lead to nosebleeds. Nose-picking can be a sign that something’s lodged in there ““ think raisin, pea, Lego piece. If this is the case, you’ll start noticing stinky breath and pus oozing out of the nostril where the object is stuck. In some cases, however, nose-picking is the result of geography. Dry climates create crusty, itchy noses. The child picks to relieve the itchiness. Dr. Nieman blames Calgary’s high altitude and dry winds for his eight-year-old son’s penchant for picking his nose.
HOW TO KICK THE HABIT Try keeping the nostrils lubricated. Vaseline works and there are also odourless over-the-counter gels that can be used to coat the inside of the nostrils. Keep a box of tissues on hand. “Get in the habit of offering the child a tissue when you see it happening,” says Raymond. “It’s a quiet, respectful way to say there’s a polite way to do what you are doing.”
*Names have been changed