It’s one thing when a preschooler bites their nails, but what if they’re four years old and still not talking much? This throws a big kink in the chain.
Four year olds are supposed to be talking. It’s a fact.
A normally-developing four year old is capable of carrying on a simple back-and-forth conversation. If they’re nail biters, they might be able to explain why they do this when asked.
Some might reply, “I don’t know,” while others can be more articulate.
Feedback is important to the parent. But if your four year old can’t yet carry on conversations, see how they do with “yes” or “no” questions:
• Do you like to bite your nails?
• Does biting your nails make you feel better?
• Do you bite your nails when you’re scared?
These questions will make the child more aware of the problem. This is a start, not a cure. Use a calm voice, not a demeaning one.
A four year old with normal speaking skills can answer questions such as:
• When you bite your nails, how do you feel?
• Why is it hard to stop biting your nails?
• What makes you bite your nails?
• Do you want to stop biting your nails? (If the answer is “no” then ask why not – and don’t sound angry).
My nephew is four years and two months as I write this. He bites his nails. He’s able to say words but cannot express his thoughts or feelings, and cannot answer open-ended questions.
He can point to the pizza when it arrives and say “pee-saa!” But he’s not capable of asking, “Where’s the pizza? I’m hungry! When’s the pizza coming?”
Common Attempts to Get Preschoolers to Stop Biting Their Nails
Painting on a bitter substance. My sister-in-law put the foul tasting liquid on the four-year-old’s fingernails. It didn’t work. He figured out that enough chewing will dissolve it. But try it anyways; certainly won’t hurt.
Taping and gloving. The child will pull off the tape or gloves.
Corporal punishment. This may work—at least when the parent is around. It’s also easy to see how this might work when the parent is absent.
A four year old may be capable of anticipating a spanking the next time the parent checks their fingernails for regrowth and doesn’t see any. However, the ability to foresee an outcome doesn’t guarantee compliance.
Also, corporal punishment comes with a big price. Don’t go there. Do you want your child to see you as their hero or their bully?
It’s akin to thinking that you’ll finally lose your 20 extra pounds if your husband punches you every time the scale says no weight lost.
Corporal punishment may seem like a fitting solution to a non-talking four year old who can’t provide verbal feedback. But striking him or her may also intensify the habit!
Timeouts and taking away toys. These consequences will have little effect at stopping the habit, even if the four year old can talk up a storm. But try them; won’t hurt.
Reasoning or lying. Don’t bother with asking, “Don’t you want nice looking nails?” Few four year olds care what their nails look like. “Your fingertips look ugly” also won’t work. If it did, don’t you think most adult nail biters would be able to stop?
Don’t tell them things like “Your teeth will fall out.” The effectiveness won’t last more than a day.
Nagging. This works when you’re there. But the second you turn your back, guess what happens. It’s also draining on the parent.
Threats of cruelty. Don’t threaten to tie the child’s hands behind their back or burn their fingers. Again, do you want to be the hero they trust or the bully they don’t trust?
Ignoring the problem. This is one of those behaviors that won’t go away if you ignore it.
Here are three great recommendations that can help a speech delayed four year old quit biting their nails without damaging their self-esteem or making you come across as a bully.