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How do I stop my toddler from picking his nails?

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My 2 yr old son picks his nails constantly; they are down to the quick and I know they have to hurt. I developed this same habit, too, as a child until I was about 16 yrs old. He has now started picking his cuticles and even his toes. What is the best way to get him to stop? My husband gets very upset and constantly tells him to stop, but of course, this doesn’t work. I try to keep his hands busy by giving him a toy or something else but he still manages to pick.

He has other obsessions too such as lights and ceiling fans. He will go from room to room to check lights to see if they are on or off and gets very upset and throws tantrums if he cannot “fix” them, as he says. He won’t go to sleep in his bed until everything is just right – this means his blanket adjusted just so, stuffed animal in right position, closet light on, etc. He will NOT sleep anywhere else so my husband and I have become prisoners in our home. We haven’t been anywhere overnight since he was born. He has always been what is termed a “high need” baby, even as an infant. He was not a self-soother (he still isn’t), wasn’t and still isn’t what you might describe as a snuggly child, and he cried all the time. He still cries a lot and rarely plays with his toys. He wants to be where I am or where my husband is. I should also mention that my son is an only child and that I didn’t have him until I was 40. All of this is getting very stressful, but the incessant nail-picking is really getting out of hand. Should we take him to a child psychologist?

How do I stop my toddler from picking his nails?

Answered by on -


Yes. I think you should. I can’t venture a diagnosis on the basis of your letter since the same behaviors can be rooted in very different things. It could be that your son is by temperament an anxious child. It could be that he is picking up on your anxiety about his anxiety and that is making him even more anxious. It’s unusual but not unheard of for a child this young to show the beginnings of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or it may be something entirely different. Regardless, one way to manage stress for your son as well as you and your husband is to seek out more information. It’s often a great relief to simply know what we’re dealing with.

According to the Share Care website, Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD, says, “It can be difficult to coax a child to drop a habit like picking her nails. Sometimes kids abandon such habits on their own, but if you feel it’s time to put an end to the nail-picking, here are some tips:

Explain gently why you don’t like the habit, but don’t repeatedly criticize your child. This may only exacerbate the unwanted behavior.
Encourage your child to play an active role in breaking the habit. Make it something that you work on together, as a team.
Suggest a replacement for the habit — perhaps something unobtrusive the child can do with her fingers instead of picking them.
Reward your child when she shows signs of breaking the habit.
Be patient. Breaking a habit often takes a good deal of time!”

Equally important, a good diagnosis gives us a direction for correcting the situation. I encourage you to ask your pediatrician for a referral to an experienced child psychologist and take your son for an evaluation.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

How do I stop my toddler from picking his nails?

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on September 17, 2007.

Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Dr. Marie is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2019). How do I stop my toddler from picking his nails?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 May 2019 (Originally: 17 Sep 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 May 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.