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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

How to break a kid’s ‘annoying’ habit without breaking her spirit

March 27, 2010

What are you talking about, Mom? I don't bite my nails... much

What are you talking about, Mom? I don't bite my nails... much

The people we love most are better than the rest of humanity at annoying the crap out of us. Especially our kids. Double the annoyance factor if the child in question is your only child.

In case you’re wondering why their thumb sucking, fidgeting or hair twirling drives you to distraction, here’s my theory: Shaping them into our vision of “perfection” (so they are assured to attract a mate) is our biological imperative.

At least that’s what we believe.

So what do you do when your kid, tween or teen has a singularly unattractive bad habit? Nag? Threaten? Cajole? Plead? Or do you attempt to ignore it while grinding your teeth into useless nubs? Just so happens I got an email today from the  mom of an Olympic champion nail biter. Listen in:

Hi Annie,

My seventh grader bites her nails, she has done it “forever.” Any  suggestions because my nagging has not been improving the situation.

Mom on the Ledge

_____________________________

Dear Mom,

I’m not surprised your nagging hasn’t helped. Not because “Please stop that!” isn’t good advice. It is. However, I’m guessing that your daughter is mostly unaware of putting her fingers in her mouth. The other part of this unconscious habit is that there is likely a soothing/calming aspect to it. Which is why she does it. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • What is your biggest objection to her nail biting?
  • In which situations (school, social, etc.) is she most likely to bite her nails?
  • Aside from being a “nail biter” how would you describe your daughter?
  • Has she specifically said that she’d like to break this habit?

In friendship,

Annie

_______________________

Hi Annie,

I asked my daughter if she would like to stop biting her nails after your insightful question. She said “No” then “Yes, if I don’t have to put much energy into it.” She and her dad bite their nails, she has most of her life.

She bites her cuticles as well, in the car, reading, in social settings. She is a great kid, reads, dances, sings, plays the piano, is a great student, independently motivated to do homework, has started to help around the house more in the last year, has positive relationships with friends, is a single child. My concern about the nail biting is that it exposes a person to more germs though she rarely gets sick so maybe it’s been good for her immune system!

Thank you for helping me be a better parent.

Mom on the Ledge

_______________________

Dear Mom,

Sound like you’re taking the nagging permanently off the table. Great! It probably hasn’t worked with your husband either! And with a tween/teen, you certainly don’t want to provide her inner rebel a reason to not take your good advice.

The good news here is that it sounds like your daughter would like to stop biting her nails. So how about offering her a reward/incentive program? This might work because she sounds like an achiever who is, as you say, “independently motivated” to get homework done (in order to earn great grades, etc.). Have a talk with her about working toward earning something she wants if she can make progress in breaking the habit…. Cash toward a special item or experience she’s been wanting (like a concert or a trip to a theme park, etc.).  Establish a system in which there’s a nail inspection at the end of each week. (Make a chart if she likes so she can see how she’s gaining mastery over the behavior.) For each fingernail that you can neatly clip with a nail clipper at the end of each week, she earns a certain amount of money or points that go directly toward what she’s saving up for. Each week there could be an added BONUS (double the money/points) if all 10 fingernails are clipable. If she’s into the idea, you could reward her with a professional manicure!

Research shows that if a person can refrain from a long established bad habit for 30 days then he/she can lick it. Whenever she consciously chooses not to bite her nails, new neuron pathways replace the old, and after a month she won’t do it any more. It’s not any different when someone wants to take up a new healthy habit, like walking every day. After 30 days of pushing through mental resistance and taking the walk, the new habit become “normal.”

Your daughter’s smart and motivated, so this might work. Also, I would guess that at some point as her social life kicks in, she will become more aware of how others in her peer group (girls and guys) perceive her. Bottom line, chomping on your nails and cuticles isn’t all that attractive if you want someone to hold your hand!

I hope this helps!

In friendship,

Annie

If you’ve got a success story about helping a child put himself back in control of an out-of-control habit, please post a comment! This is an educational forum. Big thanks to the mom who gave me permission to reprint our email exchange. Sharing stories and concerns is how we all become more effective parents.

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3 Comments »

  1. Hi. I am Jess. My daughter Kendra is being a real pain. She keeps talking about boys and everything. Are kids (12yrs old – 13) supposed to be thinking that way yet?

    Thanks,

    Jess

    Comment by Jess — May 11, 2010 @ 8:40 am

  2. Hi Annie

    You’re right about our children being able to annoy the crap out of us. My 13 yr old has a nasty habit of picking her ass. Or maybe I should say ‘backside’. It’d be fine if she did it in the privacy of her own room but noo… she has to do when we’re at family get-togethers and with other friends. I think she ENJOYS embarassing me in public. Anyway, I’ll give your advice a try…

    Comment by Sandra — August 9, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

  3. Are kids trained in a science camp to better annoy their parents? It’s really a big question for me how they know exactly what is going to drive us crazy. And what really bothers me is that they have really mastered that craft that even reverse psychology does not work anymore.

    Comment by Ruby — February 13, 2011 @ 11:02 am

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