Child Nail Biting & Impulse Control Disorder

By Jonae Fredericks
Nail biting is no longer an impulse control disorder.
Nail biting is no longer an impulse control disorder.

If your child is a nail-biter, he is one of many children that bite their nails at some point in their lifetime. In fact, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health Encyclopedia explains that half of kids between 10 and 18 years of age bite their nails. The health encyclopedia also explains that nail biting is more commonplace in boys than girls, when both genders surpass the age of 10. With the prevalence of nail-biting came a short-lived classification -- impulse control disorder.


According to the book, “The Oxford Handbook of Obsessive Compulsive and Spectrum Disorders,” nail-biting is also referred to onychophagia. Children who bite their nails often do so during times of anxiety. The biting usually increases as the anxiety increases. Boredom also brings on nail-biting in children, and in the cases of both anxiety and boredom, the repetitive chewing sometimes extends to the cuticles, nail beds and surrounding skin, resulting in bleeding and secondary infections.


Because of its association with anxiety and other types of compulsive obsessive disorders, the classification of nail-biting is controversial. Although onychophagia does not make an appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, it does fall under the classification of impulse control disorders in the revised edition of the manual, according to the book, “Baran and Dawber's Diseases of the Nails and their Management.”

DSM Updates

DSM-IV-TR, the update to DSM-IV-R, removes nail-biting from the list of impulse control disorders. According to the book, “Kapalan and Sadock's Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry”, cases of nail-biting in children are rarely severe enough to any of the diagnosis criteria in the DSM-IV-TR. However, DSM-V, once again reclassifies nail-biting, this time, under the heading "Other Specified and Unspecified Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders". The repetitive behaviors in nail-biting -- despite attempts to stop -- now meets the diagnosis criteria.


Like adults, the treatment for child nail biters is complex, but a combination of behavioral changes and psychical barriers between the nails and teeth can help. For instance, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health Encyclopedia explains that the use of a commercial nail polish, specifically designed to curb nail biting can help. These nail polishes have an unpleasant taste that queues the child each time she puts her fingers in her mouth; ceasing the biting. Keeping her nails neatly filed, trimmed and polished can also help. Adhesive bandages and brightly colored stickers work as reminders for her not to bite -- so does a pair of gloves.

About the Author

Jonae Fredericks started writing in 2007. She also has a background as a licensed cosmetologist and certified skin-care specialist. Jonae Fredericks is a certified paraeducator, presently working in the public education system.