Toddler Behavior: How To Stop A 3-Year-Old's Annoying Nail Picking Habit

Hi Baby Shrink!

I learned of your website from Dad Gone Mad and have really enjoyed your no-nonsense approach. Can you help? My 3-year-old picks her nails, and has done so since she was a little over 2.  She’s just taking off any “extra”, she doesn’t make them hurt or bleed. I definitely notice it more when we’re laying in her bed reading stories just before nap or bed. I notice she does it every other day, or every 3rd day. I pick and bite my own nails, a habit I would love to break! I try not to do it in front of her. How did she pick this habit up? Was I not as diligent as I thought about not doing it in front of her, or is this a way of dealing with boredom/stress, or genetic? She has never used a pacifier, so maybe this is her way of self-soothing? I have ignored it so far, but I would love to help her break this habit if possible. She is definitely a kid who, if I tell her not to do something, then that's all she'll want to do. Any advice is greatly appreciated!

Kim from Florida

Hi Kim,

In a situation like this, the rule is: Don't Pay Attention To It.

If you do, you risk turning a harmless self-soothing strategy into a power struggle and a nasty habit. Self-soothing strategies, like the one you describe, are very personal little "quirks" that we ALL have. (As you say, you have one yourself! Isn't it funny how they "get" these things from us, somehow?) Other kids suck their thumbs or pick their noses. Right? Be glad she doesn't do one of those things, which can be harder to tolerate! ;)

She needs her little harmless thing that she does to help her wind down after a long day. It's OK. In fact, you WANT her to be comfortable at home, with you, being herself. With something as harmless as this, you don't want to point it out or make a big deal...just let her be comfortable "letting it all hang out" at home.

I’ve been re-reading Anna Freud recently. To my mind, she’s the theoretical “mother” of child specialists like Brazelton and Ginott. The youngest daughter of Sigmund showed the world how fantastically diverse childhood behavior is. She also helped us sympathize with the really difficult challenges inherent in being a child, with developmental changes and dilemmas around every corner.

It’s hard being a kid! It’s even harder being a little kid!

They don’t have the mental capacity of an adult; not even close. They think completely differently. They’re always feeling incompetent and inadequate in this world full of grown-ups. And therefore, they need lots of (usually) temporary self-soothing strategies to simply get through the day. The bottom line is: Kids Do Weird Things. Lots Of Those Weird Things Are Completely Normal.

Your daughter’s age is a key factor here. Developmentally, 3-year-olds simply don’t give a rip how they appear to others. They don’t have the capacity to imagine how their behavior might impact someone’s impression of them. When your daughter is closer to 6 or 7, she will start to care HOW she appears to others; her friends (not you!). She will then more closely monitor her behavior for what is socially acceptable. But that internal desire is nowhere near appearing now.

I know it can make you nuts, as a parent. In our house, so far, we've had to cope with thumb sucking, bottle dependence, compulsive belly-button exploration, absent-minded crotch-grabbing, and repetitive throat clearing. (Note: these habits are presented in no particular order so as not to embarrass any of BabyShrink's least one of whom can now read!) So when you see your daughter picking her nails, all you can do is take a deep breath, and look away. Continue on with whatever else you were doing. If need be, offer her something else to fiddle with, and see if she takes it. But she probably won't...not for long, anyhow.

Unfortunately, I can't help you "break" your daughter of the habit. In fact, the more you TRY to "break" her of it...the more she is likely to DO IT. Toddlers are amazing that way. They somehow find EXACTLY what it is that makes you NUTS....and do that. (Over, and over, and over...)

Sorry I can't "fix" this one, but at least now you know it's really common, and not to worry. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink