"Alex! What happened to your fingernails?" I cried in horror as I helped my 3-year-old wash his hands one day. I knew our family had undergone a lot of changes lately, but I hadn?t realized the physical effects of those changes until I saw Alex?s gnawed-down little nails, a problem we?d never dealt with before.
Change is typical for children during the preschool years. This is a stage where many children begin to participate in new activities. They are learning to separate from a parent for several hours at a time, experiencing different routines and authority figures. In addition, family time spent together may be radically altered when a new sibling arrives or Mom starts to work outside the home again. Furthermore, children at this age are becoming aware of their vulnerability, says Dr. Steve Maurer, a clinical psychologist. They begin to perceive situations as threatening, either to their physical selves or their daily lifestyles.
With this new awareness, anxiety may set in. Some kids develop behaviors and nervous habits to help them cope with the stress. Common nervous habits include:
- Nail biting
- Rapid, chattering speech
- Repeated rubbing of an area of clothing or skin
- Chewing on hair or cuticles
- Repeated motion of a limb, like bouncing a foot
- Sudden clinginess to a parent
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Facial tics, which are repetitive, involuntary movements of the eye, mouth or other facial features
If you notice that your preschooler has suddenly developed a nervous habit, you can help her overcome the problem by providing lots of love and reassurance, according to pediatrician Dr. Susan Bolton. Comfort your child with words and gestures and assure her that you?ll always be there for her. Bolton also advises parents to avoid calling attention to the habit, but instead, address the cause of the stress. For example, "I can tell that you?re a little scared about going to preschool tomorrow. Why don?t you sit on my lap and let?s talk about some ways to help you feel not so afraid." Eventually, as your child begins to feel more confident and comfortable with the new situation, the nervous habits will disappear.
However, if the nervous habit leads to health concerns?an infection develops in the nail area or the diarrhea and vomiting are more frequent than simply preceding a stressful situation?call your pediatrician. Maurer adds that parents should seek professional help when the behavior no longer calms the child but instead interferes with daily life.
For Alex, I discovered that the cause of his anxiety, and therefore his nail-biting, was the transition from a busy preschool schedule to an unstructured summer routine. So, we planned more activities, discussed in advance what we?d be doing each day and used prayer and encouraging messages like "You?re doing a good job at keeping your hands out of your mouth" to help him. By the time school started again in September, Alex had ten healthy fingernails and I had a much calmer child.
Writer, English teacher, mother of two
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