Three Habits that Affect Kids

Nail biting, thumb and finger sucking are common habits, or minor problems, in children. When they become persistent, it's time to take action

Child sucking thumbNail biting, thumb and finger sucking are, at best, minor irritants. That is, when they don’t last too long.

They may also be harmless to the child’s overall development. However, excessive indulgence may sometimes cause damage to teeth and lead to psychological and social distress.

Nail biting often begins as soon as the baby learns to control the movements of hands. It shows a steady increase up until 12 years of age, or later. Thumb sucking too may be a “focus” of worry, around the same time. The habit seems to affect girls to a greater extent than boys.

Habits that co-exist

The three habits may also have a tendency to co-exist. While thumb and finger sucking happen to be rarely the cause of a complaint, a sense of guilt, shame or ridicule, may result from their practice, especially in sensitive children.

Nail biting is known to be caused by impulses of an intense nature towards a parent. The habit may not be restricted to kids. In adults, it may occur due to a previous attempt at suicide and/or sexual “prompts.”

Likewise, if the child’s impulse towards a parent is curbed, it may undermine the child’s thought of dependence. So, in order to resolve the conflict within oneself, the child starts biting his/her nails to overcome a sense of loss, guilt and hostility, and also to show resentment. S/he may, in the process, injure oneself, without taking recourse to physical violence.

Thumb sucking, to cull a popular example, is evidenced to be a means to rid oneself of tension, or anxiety. An exciting cricket match, or a suspense thriller movie, for many of us, can lead to a “nail-biting” binge – and, a cumulative build-up to a “nail-biting” finish.

Psychoanalysts feel that inadequate or unsatisfactory breast-feeding may be one of the causative factors for the development of the three habits during child growth. Other factors which may cause a spurt in the habits range from anything between the child’s and social environment, including rocking, lullabies, or story-telling, by a loving parent.

Extremely severe nail biting, thumb and finger sucking, can lead to finger necrosis [death of tissue].

In fact, after the age of four, the trio also becomes a great cause for concern, owing to possible damage it can cause to the development of teeth. Aside from this, the child may invite social disapproval, especially in the most severe cases. This may also lead to a plunge in the child’s image of oneself.

Active vs passive

While nail biting is an active process, thumb and finger sucking happen to be passive. While the former, a tension-relieving impulse, is indulged by a child/person, who is just too bored or over-anxious, the latter may be present in nearly all babies in the first year of life. Interestingly, nail biting may also be present in a child/person who has no emotional disturbance at all.

Experts say that thumb and finger sucking under emotional stress before one year of life should not be a cause for concern. However, persistence of the habit may reflect general immaturity. It could, in some cases, be amplified by habits such as baby-talk and bed-wetting.

There’s another worry. The trio can also lead to worm infection in children. Thanks to the irritation caused by worms in the anus, especially at night, kids unwittingly place their fingers and scratch over the part during sleep. The eggs may get under and inside the nails and fingers and find their way into the body – to prosper merrily along and develop into fresh broods of worms.

It becomes mandatory for children, who are – or, not – prone to worm problems, to give up the habit. Else, a cure from worms would be difficult, or almost impossible.


For children who don’t over-indulge, no special treatment is needed. Parents would only do well to give them more attention. If this is achieved, the “affected” child gains confidence and can easily get over the problem.

In certain cases, anxiety or tension, in the child’s mind, need to be reduced with parental empathy and understanding.

From the physical angle, the child may be asked to soak his nails/thumb/fingers in olive oil, for the placebo effect to emerge, and keep him/her off the habit.

It may be mentioned, and for obvious reasons, that the use of the stick, or the rod, by a parent or teacher, may only worsen the child’s emotional frame and balance.

In cases where the three habits become relentless, leading to social, emotional and psychological problems, it would only be appropriate for the parent to solicit the help of a physician. Your physician would be in the best position possible to attend to your child’s pressing stresses, if any, and manage the problem.

Stop-the-Habits Home Plan

Nail biting, thumb and finger sucking are common childhood habits. They are unhygienic, although they typically cause no long-term problems. When the habits persist and interfere with a child’s daily functioning, proper intervention is necessary.

There are a handful of simple “home-treatment” plans a parent could follow, or use, before soliciting professional help. Here goes:

  • Coat your child’s nails with nail polish. It has a nasty taste. It may help put off the child from the indulgence
  • Apply a rubber band on their wrist. Have friends and family members snap it when the child’s bites the nails, or sucks the thumb/finger
  • Keep a record of the activity – this may be helpful in finding the root cause of the problem
  • Keep their hands occupied
  • Cut fingernails short, so there’s nothing to tempt one to bite.

You may also –

  • Seek your dentist’s help, or advice. Some nail biters find that wearing a “bite plate” makes it impossible for them to bite their nails with their teeth
  • Try Arum triphylum, a homoeopathic remedy, for nail biting, and Calcarea carbonica, for thumb/finger sucking
  • Seek behavioural intervention and/or therapeutic hypnotherapy, when nothing works.
Rajgopal Nidamboor
Dr Rajgopal Nidamboor, a trained physician, is a writer, commentator, and author. In a career spanning 25 years, Nidamboor has published over 2,000 articles, on a variety of subjects, two coffee table books, an E-book, and a primer on therapeutics, aside from an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy.


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