Question: In the past year, my 14-year-old daughter has begun a nasty and disgusting habit -- she chews her fingernails off and the skin around them. Outside of school (and other similarly public venues), she nearly always has a hand in her mouth, and in her trail, she leaves bits of skin and nail all over the house. It is particularly evident on the dark couch after she's been watching TV for awhile. Her nails are a mess -- red and chewed up, plus I'm concerned about the germs going in, particularly with the swine flu treat for her age group. I've suggested she sit on her hands, wear gloves, etc., but she's not interested in stopping. How can I get her to drop this awful habit?
From: US Patriot, Wakefield
Hi USPatriot --
Honestly? I'd be more worried about why she started in the first place than about getting her to stop. Kids turn to these kinds of habits as a source of comfort or control and when a 14-year-old picks up a habit like this, it's a pretty safe bet that she's feeling stress of some kind. It could be anything from worry about academics and whether she'll be able to go to a "good" college to a reaction to social pressure from her girl friends, to sexual pressure she's feeling from her social group.
Getting to the bottom of the cause is not easy, especially at this age. About the best thing you can do is spend quality time with her doing something pleasurable as a way to strengthen your bond and get her to open up. Sometimes, just letting her know that you know this can be a stage of life when there's lots of stress may be enough to get her to open up or to feel that she's supported.
Getting her to stop? It's never easy to break children of nervous habits.
Clinicians will tell you that the only way to get a child to drop a habit is for the child to want to stop. And what typically makes that happen isn't going to be anything you say or do as the parent, it's going to come from being teased by her peers (who may well be the source of stress to begin with!) or from seeing that it annoys a best friend. Even if you warn her that picking could have this effect, she likely won't believe you, so save your breathe.
Two ways you might be able to help her stop:
1. Tell her about someone you knew as a teen who was teased by peers because of his nervous habit.
2. Offer support: "If you want to stop picking, let me know, I might have some ideas about how you could stop." The best strategy is to help her figure out something else she can do when she feels the need to pick, for instance, to carry an object in her pocket that she can finger; or to chew gum. Another suggestion: she carries a piece of paper in her pocket and marks it every time she notices someone is noticing that she's picking. Tell her, "Then you can decide for yourself if this is a problem.''
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