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Nail Biting And Other Bad Habits

From Raising Children, © 1994 by Billy E. Pennal, Ph.D.

Once upon a time there was a very young girl who had a very bad habit of biting her nails. Her little fingers ended in sometimes bloody nubs. Her parents tried everything they could think of to get her to stop biting her nails but nothing worked. Even the nasty stuff which is painted on nails to make them taste bad had no effect other than to hurt her little fingers. She had to soak her fingers daily in a medicinal solution to prevent infection. In short, this was a real problem for the little girl as well as for her parents.

Actually, the little girl seemed to have no motivation to stop. I think she enjoyed biting her nails and hated to give it up. She was not concerned about how her fingers looked at that age and she had grown accustomed to them the way they were.

This is an example of how ineffective punishment as a behavior modifier can be. The nasty stuff was a punisher, it was administered immediately when she put her fingers in her mouth to bite her nails, it was very aversive and by all accounts it should have been effective. However, it was not.

The fact that she liked to bite her nails and received a reward for doing it was stronger than the punisher that was painted on her fingers. The only thing to do here would have been to increase the severity of the punisher so it would offset the pleasure she got from biting her nails. With children, that is not a very good option. You can hurt them physically and emotionally by misuse of punishers.

As she got older and her friends noticed her fingers it started to become more of a problem for her, however. Finally, she came to me and said in a little, plaintive voice "Daddy, please help me stop biting my nails." The little girl happened to be my daughter. How could I ignore a request such as this?

The ineffective attempts at behavior modification had failed previously because we didn't have much to work with that would counter the enjoyment she got from biting her nails. We had been trying to use some punishment techniques (such as the nasty nail paint) and as I have said previously, punishment is the least effective way to change behavior. Now that she wanted to stop for herself, she had a motivation that could help with the project.

Now, in a case like this there is a more complex problem to deal with than simple modification of her behavior. She had a habit to break also. My definition of a habit is a behavior that has become unconscious and automatic. In this case, she was biting her nails not only because she liked to do it, but also because she was not aware she was doing it most of the time. We had to get control of the habit part of this behavior as well as to change the behavior. We now had her working with us and she had a strong motivation to succeed. This was our best asset.

Since this was a two-fold problem, I reasoned it would be more effective if we could combine a habit-breaking technique with common-sense behavior modification. To break a habit, the primary job is to change the unconscious, automatic components of the behavior. It is very simple to do this, but it can also be very difficult at the same time even though it is simple. The rule for breaking a habit is simply to monitor the habit. This means you must call it to your attention whenever you find you are doing your habit. The first step is to define the behavior that is the habit. In this case, we defined the behavior as "any time her hands touched her face for any reason." The next step is what I call the "Whoops!" response. That is, whenever she touched her hand to her face, she was to mentally say "Whoops!" to herself, or something like that. This is a way of marking on your mental blackboard and sort of keeping score. In other words, monitoring the habit.

This was quite a lot to expect of such a little girl, so I tried to combine a little fun as well as science to the project. I gave her a golf counter, which looks like a wrist watch, but keeps count of how many times a plunger on the counter is pressed. She was to wear it on her wrist like a watch and every time she found that she touched either hand to her face anywhere, she was to press the plunger on the counter. At the end of the day, she was to come to me and together we would plot the number of counts (face touches) on a graph. Notice how she was being rewarded for doing the components of this project. I still believe my daughter likes me a lot and my undivided attention to our little project was very rewarding to her. She was being rewarded for doing the things involved with the project.

She looked on this as a game and seemed to enjoy the activities of keeping count of the times her hand touched her face. At first, the number on the counter was very high. She was catching herself touching her hands to her face often. She was probably touching her face many times that she was not aware and these didn't get counted. The theory of habit breaking is the unconscious starts becoming conscious and not automatic as the person becomes aware of the habit. As it becomes less unconscious through monitoring, it becomes easier to notice because it is becoming less unconscious. Thus the circle grows more and more toward awareness of the unconscious habit. If a person consciously and deliberately does some behavior, that is not a habit, but a thing the person wants to do. Habit-breaking techniques will not work in that case.

After a few days, we noticed the line on her graph was starting to go downward. Soon after that, it went down very fast, and within about one or two weeks, the number of counts was down to about one or two per day. Her graph had settled down to a straight line just above the zero point on the graph. Remember, this was just a count of how many times she caught herself touching her face. We were not counting nail biting. Of course, it's pretty hard to bite your nails without touching your face with your hands. The act of pressing the counter helped her monitor and also provided a punishing stimulus for behavior modification. We were modifying the behavior of nail biting, and the behavior of habitually doing something.

Being a perfectionist, I thought one or two times per day was still too much. I figured we could get down to zero by adding an additional slight punishing factor to the situation. This part was probably not necessary. At that time she was getting a small allowance each week, and seemed to like getting the money. So I told her that starting immediately, for each count she would lose one nickel of her allowance for the week. She lost about two nickels and the count went to zero and stayed there.

Now I know what you are thinking. You believe she was still biting her nails, but she was smart enough to quit pressing the counter. After all, I wasn't following her around during the day to check on her. She could have just lied about the counter. True, she could have done that; however, her nails were growing the entire time and there was absolutely no evidence she was biting her nails at all. Prior to this, she had nubs for finger tips, and after our project started, she had finger nails for the first time in her life. To this day, she still has long, beautiful nails and she now has a little girl of her own.

Let's review what happened and see how behavior modification principles were applied to the problem of nail biting. The habit component required modification as well as the behavioral component. We used the habit-breaking technique of monitoring the habit, and we used reward for success and punishment for failure. The punishment in this case involved the act of pressing the counter. This functioned as a mild punisher since it was associated with nail biting. The loss of a nickel of her allowance was a punisher which was a bit more severe for her than the counter press. It probably was not needed, but it didn't involve anything very bad and maybe it helped. This is a case where the positive, rewarding part of the behavior modification was just a general reward of attention of a significant adult for doing the project. The punishment part was the main component of the process in this case.

Normally, I don't believe in the use of punishment as a way of modifying behavior. Sometimes, however, there seems to be no other way. Punishment is a difficult method to use effectively without causing some more undesirable behaviors or personality changes to take place. Given enough control and severe enough punisher, you could probably change anyone's behavior to anything you wanted it to be. The prisoners of war who were brainwashed are a good example of this. Even then, however, some of the prisoners resisted the brainwashing despite some very severe punishers being used. You certainly wouldn't want to break your child's spirit or brainwash him.

There have been two lessons in this chapter. You have learned about how to break a habit, and how to use a very mild punisher to help a person change something he wants to change. If the person doesn't want to change, this method won't work. You will probably have to try some of the prison camp techniques and I don't want to help you with that. The principles illustrated in this chapter apply to all kinds of habits you may want to break in yourself or to help your child break in himself, provided that is what the child wants.

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