Biting or chewing your nails might seem like a harmless habit but there’s more to it than meets the eye. It’s often a sign of nervousness or anxiety and can turn into a compulsive habit if not stopped early on. In fact, compulsively biting your nails and your fingers or Dermatophagia affects children as much as adults.
But while adults can still manage their anxiety and the urge to bite their nails in public, kids cannot. Some children are extremely sensitive and nervous around people and often resort to it. If not controlled in time, the habit can turn into a bigger problem and cause other health issues too
Let’s dive deeper to learn why your child bites his nails.
What is Dermatophagia?
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The TLC Foundation for body-focused repetitive behaviours suggests that Dermatophagia occurs in people who are suffering from onychophagia, which is the condition of biting nails. Dermatophagia takes it a step further and also includes the act of biting one’s own skin repeatedly.
Children who suffer from Dermatophagia tend to bite the skin on their fingertips or around their cuticles. Kids may also bite the inside of their cheeks or the skin on their lips.
What Causes Dermatophagia?
There are several reasons that could trigger Dermatophagia and is largely common among children who are naturally anxious. Issues like general anxiety or social phobia could trigger anxiety in a child. There could also be specific instances in the child’s life that have created anxiety in them, which in turn causes Dermatophagia.
If you do notice your child being anxious in specific situations, it would be a good time to speak to him/her about what triggers the feeling. In most cases, the child would not be aware that he is biting his nails. The act of biting nails or skin would work as a stress reliever during that phase.
How To Identify Dermatophagia?
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There are few signs to identify if your child is suffering from Dermatophagia.
- Children who tend to bite their nails usually have self-inflicted wounds around their fingers.
- Their fingers appear raw and chewed upon around the sides of the nails.
- While it may not be immediately apparent, loose or peeled skin around the fingers or constant ulcers in the mouth are signs that you must watch out for.
- Another sign would be stomach infections on a frequent basis. The bacteria hiding underneath the nails triggers such infections.
What Happens In Dermatophagia?
When children nervously bite their fingers, tongue or the inside of their mouth, their anxiety disappears for a temporary period. It is a coping mechanism and helps to calm themselves down.
However, as children grow, this can turn into a compulsive habit that needs to be avoided at all costs.
The act continues to work as a stress buster, which makes it all the more difficult to resist. Moreover, it turns into a subconscious habit rather than something that the child would do actively.
At times, children bite their nails out of boredom or distraction. It’s almost a body reflex triggered in the most unlikely situations.
How Do You Treat Dermatophagia?
If you see your child suffering from Dermatophagia, it is important that you speak to them about the harm and begin different coping strategies.
It would be a good option to consult a child psychologist or a counsellor at this point to help your child with his anxiety. Psychologists will help ascertain your child's anxiety levels if it is triggered by an isolated incident or a disorder.
In either case, children will be given techniques to control their anxiety. This includes breathing exercises or relaxation techniques to calm the mind down. Sometimes, just distracting oneself in order to resist, will also do the trick.
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It’s also important to make sure that you do not punish or ground your child for biting his nails. In most cases, incidents like these only trigger their anxiety further, which only goes on to encourage that problem into a habit.
Your child needs to feel safe and calm when addressing this issue instead of being overwhelmed.
Parents can also treat Dermatophagia by using the habit reversal technique. This usually sees the child perform an opposite action whenever they detect the urge to bite their nails or skin.
For instance, your child could sit on their hands whenever he feels the urge to bite his nails. Or, he could engage in some activity like colouring or writing that will keep them busy till the phase has passed.
At the end of it, just be patient with your child and monitor his progress when it comes to dermatophagia. He needs your love and support, and assurance that will help build his confidence and ease anxiety issues going forward.
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