The Psychology of Why so Many People Bite Their Nails
Biting nails: children and adolescents do it especially (according to some research, it is a habit shared by 20-30% of children going to school and 45% of teenagers; starting from the age of 18, this behavior decreases even though it may persist into adulthood (or begin).
Concretely, nail-biting develops in four phases:
In the first phase, the eye falls in some way on the finger or, that finger and the nail are “perceived” (for example thanks to the rubbing of the fingers between them, or to the fingertip passage). In practice: attention is called in a non-predetermined, unscheduled way. In the second phase, that finger is placed near the mouth, in contact with the lips. A gesture that is a little comforting and a little reassuring. At that point – and the third passage begins – the position of the jaw is changed and the nail is tapped quickly against the front teeth with small biting actions, mostly fast and spasmodic. Finally, the last phase: the fingers are removed from the mouth.
The consequences of onychophagia , so it is defined by science as “nail-biting”, do not only concern the aesthetic appearance of the finger and nail, including cuticles, but also the health and well-being of the mouth: based on intensity and to the frequency of the behavior can be in fact created some problems to the chewing, consequent to the modification of the arrangement of the teeth and the jaw. Small imperceptible variations, however, make the difference.
From research in psychology and from observations, particularly in psychosomatics, it clearly emerges that for many, teasing, biting and biting fingernails is a sort of anti-tension “strategy”. Children do it in moments of distress, when at school they don’t know a lesson or while reading sad stories, listening to horror stories, watching television or talking on the phone. It can also be a behavior learned by family members or, even, the consequence of a bad relationship with a mother in non-welcoming or aggressive ways.
The reasons for adults are not very different: it becomes an automatic way to download emotional discomfort and stress of various kinds and intensity. For example, among the most avid “nail eaters” we find the ” perfectionists“: for them, impatient, driven by goals and with a high level of expectation, it becomes a way to lighten the inevitable frustrations and disappointments. Even feeling lonely, especially in the most sensitive people, can induce this habit that on the one hand discharges emotional distress and on the other is an act of self-aggression.
According to more recent studies, it could be an inherited behavior: often it is a mode chosen by those who had at least one parent who was for a certain onychophagia period (even if he stopped before the birth of the child!).
It is important to know then that, in some cases, the frequency and severity of the behavior make it a real disorder : in DSM 5, the onychophagia falls within the obsessive-compulsive framework; it consists of unwanted, continuous thoughts, and compulsions, that is, behaviors implemented not by choice but by a very strong impulse, “irresistible”, to carry them out.
Whatever the age of those who eat their nails, punishment is not needed to eliminate this behavior; attention to aesthetics can work (especially with adults) but alone can hardly be enough. The “threats” are counter-productive, playing with irony or derision.
Even the various bitter enamels that should act like a disgusting deterrent as soon as you put your finger in your mouth can really only help those who are willing to change. The most correct approach is the holistic one: arriving at the cause, identifying the reason why this sort of self-aggression occurs.
Working on these aspects, taking care of them in a conscious and pro-active way, on the one hand it will be possible to reduce or eliminate the causes, on the other it will be possible to build an authentic motivation that will effectively accompany all the more technical interventions or the strategies (such as bitter-flavored enamel) useful or necessary.