One of the ways we communicate our feelings is through body language. Even before we identify and verbalize a feeling, our body gives it away. Our body’s reaction to an emotional state is automatic. Some examples are when we are suddenly frightened, our body may jump. When we are angry, our hands may ball up in a fist. When we are disappointed, our shoulders may fall.
Nail-biting in teens may be an automatic response to feeling nervous or anxious. As one teen described it recently to me, “I feel nerves.” Biting their nails is a way for them to release nervous energy. Often, the teen may not even realize they are doing it unless someone says something. They might become aware, remove their hand, only to put it back in their mouths within minutes. For some parents, the concern is that it is unsanitary and spreads germs. However, it isn’t rare to see that the parent of the nail biter, also bites their nails.
So, how can we get the behavior to stop? Because it is an automatic response, the brain needs to be trained on an alternative response. This will take intentionality and consistency. Here are some steps:
- Say to your teen, “I notice you are biting your nails, are you feeling nervous about something?” If they say yes, encourage them to tell you more. Acknowledge the feeling.
- Walk them through a breathing exercise to release the anxiety. Deep breath in, slow, tiny breaths out. Repeat as needed.
- Encourage them to go for a walk or give them a stress ball or Play-Doh to squeeze with their hands.
It will take practice but the main thing is creating awareness that the nervousness is present. Eventually, they will make the connection and replace the behavior on their own.
For more information on this topic or to learn more about how to help your teen reduce anxiety, contact us today.