Q: What can I do to prevent my 2 1/2 -year-old from biting her nails?
A: Two-and-a-half strikes us as an early age for a full-blown nail-biting habit. While preschoolers may begin to bite their nails, it is most often a problem of school-aged children and adults.
If your daughter is already biting her nails, she may be copying someone she admires. Can you get that person to stop? Look for patterns in her biting, anticipate the most likely times and, without telling her not to bite her nails, keep her hands busy with other, more interesting things.
If your daughter seems to be biting her nails to comfort herself, it may be because she stopped doing something else before she was ready. Perhaps she's missing thumb-sucking or a pacifier. Perhaps she's missing her special blanket or sitting in your lap. Allowing her to comfort herself in one of those ways (within limits you can live with) might make the nail-biting disappear.
Whether your daughter is a current or future nail biter, keep her nails neatly trimmed, so there are no tempting fragments. No amount of parental advice or nagging will end nail-biting. The older child begins biting with little or no thought about what she is doing and is most likely to bite at times of stress. Harsh parental disapproval will only increase anxiety and biting.
Dr. Wilson is director of pediatric primary care of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.