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My 12-year-old nephew bites his nails until there is nothing left


Dear Life Coach,

My 12-year-old nephew constantly bites his nails. He started two years ago when he moved to a new neighbourhood and changed school. His nails are so eaten up that his cuticles are sore. We have tried to get him to stop, but without success, and there is nothing left to bite.{{more}}

Concerned Uncle (CU)

Dear CU,

You are concerned that your nephew will not be able to use his hands if he bites his nails any further.

What’s Going On:

Here are some factors that contribute to your present situation: onychophagia (nail biting), oral fixation, and severe emotional stress, among others. These I will address briefly.


Onychophagia refers to nail biting which occurs mainly in childhood and adolescence and rarely in adulthood. This disorder generally indicates the presence of severe emotional stress, which is somewhat reduced when the individual bites his or her nails.

Oral Fixation

Psychologists indicate that during infancy, pleasure centres are located within the mouth and so infants explore and experience the world by sucking, chewing, biting and nibbling on everything in sight, including their feet and fingers. During this oral phase, infants also learn to trust or distrust the world, depending on whether their caregivers attend to their physical and emotional needs. If the emotional needs of the infants are met, they move on successfully to the next stage of their emotional development. If the infant’s emotional needs go unmet, then he or she becomes fixated (emotionally stuck) in the oral stage of development as chronological age increases (as they get older), which may be demonstrated by nail-biting, cigarette smoking and other persistently oral activities.


Stress refers to a mental and physical condition that occurs when a person must adjust to changes in the environment, for example, relocating to a new home and or school. It is clear that your nephew has experienced emotional stress from these changes.

What to Do:

Identify Sources of Stress

Look for sources of stress in your nephew’s life – at school, home and in the community. Has your nephew been abused in the past? Is your nephew being abused or bullied at present? Did he have a traumatic situation at any time in his past, e.g. a threat to his life, or did he witness a threat to someone else’s life? Is your nephew exposed to domestic violence? Any of these negative incidences can cause emotional trauma for your nephew.

Reduce Sources of Stress

If your child moved from a neighbourhood where he was in contact with family or friends whom he no longer sees, you could consider taking him there for a visit, or allow him to communicate via telephone, email, Facebook etc. Observe the friendship connections of your nephew and remove negative friendships, such as potential bullies or delinquent youth.

Ensure Adequate Extracurricular Activities

The opposite of stress is relaxation. So, ensure that your nephew is involved in at least three recreational or extracurricular activities of his choice each week, such as football, athletics, and music.

Safe Environment

Ensure that your nephew is in a calm, safe environment with patient and understanding adults who use incidences of disrespect or disobedience in a positive way as teachable moments and avoid harsh forms of discipline.

Gadget Control

In this Internet age, many young people spend in excess of two hours per day on TV, Internet, video games, telephones etc. These electronic devices may seem relaxing, but they do sap vital energy and can cause headaches, anxiety, and feelings of stress etc if they are used excessively, and if negative programs are being viewed, e.g. violence, pornography and horror. So, monitor your nephew’s use of electronic gadgets by placing parental controls on them, and limiting their use to two hours per day.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can also cause feelings of anxiety, poor concentration, low frustration tolerance, stress and a general sick feeling in anyone, but especially in children and youth. So, ensure that your nephew is getting at least eight hours of sleep each night. That means that he should be in bed by 9 p.m. each night.

Adequate Nutrition

Proper nutrition is vital for pre-adolescent children who have growing teeth and bones. So, ensure that your nephew is having a balanced diet which consists of: 1. Proteins, e.g. lean meat such as fish, turkey and chicken; dairy such as milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt; and nuts 2. Complex carbohydrates, e.g. whole wheat bread and ground provisions 3. Vitamins and minerals, e.g. a variety of fruits and vegetables and which defend the body against diseases. Many teenagers prefer manufactured foods, however; so, encourage your nephew to eat foods that are natural, since they are healthier and will provide the nutrition he needs in order to keep healthy and strong.

Nail Coating

If all else fails, you may want to transact with your nephew to have his nails painted with transparent nail polish, which has a bitter taste. This will be a deterrent to his nail biting behaviour.

CU, it is distressing to watch your nephew biting his nails non-stop, but with time and a stress-free environment, this symptom is likely to subside.

Life Coach


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