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Stop Your Kid's Dirty Habit

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My daughter picks her nails until they bleed ... and it's driving me nuts. Luckily, pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson has some pointers to help stop the madness.

girl looking at her fingernails

Momlogic's Julie: My 5-year-old daughter picks her nails constantly and won't stop. She has been doing it for about a year or two now. We have painted her nails, bribed her, begged her to quit ... but nothing has seemed to work so far. She often picks at her nails and cuticles until her fingers are red and swollen, or even bleeding. I have considered making her wear gloves. She has gotten infections, and at one point, her pediatrician even thought she had MRSA and put her on heavy-duty antibiotics. Eek.

I don't know WHY she does this ... but it is driving me nuts and making me very nervous. I turned to pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson for help.

Here's what Dr. Cara had to say:

My daughter was a nail picker, too. She did it starting around two-and-a-half, and stopped on the eve of her 4th birthday. The only reason I know precisely when she stopped is that we tried incentivizing her with a birthday visit to Disneyland and it wasn't working. When we told her that Aurora (i.e., Sleeping Beauty) once picked her nails but she was able to stop all by herself, that did the trick. We did, in fact, go to Disneyland for her birthday and she spent much of the day looking for Aurora to tell her that they shared a mutual accomplishment!

Your frustration is understandable, especially since your daughter has had complications from the picking (including a pretty significant infection). The reality, though, is that she cannot just stop. Some kids are oral, other kids are manual, and some are neither. What I mean by that is that some kids need to put everything in their mouth, while others need to fiddle with their hands. These are tools they use to help them concentrate, or to calm themselves, or just because the low-level sensation feels good. So to expect your daughter to simply stop is almost impossible because she needs to be moving her fingers. This is why, despite incentives and begging and star-charts, nothing has worked.

The best solutions I have seen have involved substitution: give her something else to do with her hands. You can teach her how to finger-crochet with yarn; you can give her balls to roll around in the palm of her hand; you can teach her just about anything that keeps her fingers occupied so that she does not pick. She will still "fiddle," and that might annoy you, but it's a whole lot better than an MRSA infection of the cuticle.

There is also the barrier method: placing Band-Aids over the fingers to impede the picking. The main problem with this is that if your daughter picks all 10 fingers, she cannot walk around with 10 Band-Aids -- she will either simply take them off or people will ask about them and it will become a source of attention. But if she only picks one or two fingers, putting the Band-Aids there (and explaining WHY you are doing this -- a crucial piece of the puzzle) can help remind her not to pick.

Finally -- and maybe most importantly -- this is yet another example of one of those things that can be a button-pusher. Don't let your daughter know it drives you crazy. Right now you have a problem to solve: she is picking to the point of infection and it has to stop. But down the road, once you have found a way to curtail the habit, if she remembers that it drove you crazy, she might just start doing it again when she wants to get a reaction. So do your very best to hide your own emotions here -- that should reduce the likelihood of the behavior creeping back up once it is gone.

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