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Say 'Aaah' | Kid Health

Learning to Kick the Habit

March 20, 2000|EMILY DWASS

If you frequently bite your nails, twist a lock of hair or chew on pencils, don't worry. You're not alone. A lot of kids have these kinds of nervous habits as a way to deal with stress in their lives.

"It's tough to be a kid nowadays," says Barbara Korsch, a professor at USC and a pediatrician at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. Kids can get stressed out by their own lives, she says, as well as by troubling events on the news.

Often, you're unaware of your habit until a parent reminds you. But the more someone nags you, the more nervous you become. And the more nervous you are, the more likely you are to continue the habit.

"Nobody else can make you stop by nagging you," Korsch says. "The only person who can really stop it is you."

Most habits are "a way to decrease anxiety," says Dr. David Feinberg, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UCLA. Habits may begin when you face a tense situation, such as an exam. You gnaw your pencil, you feel more relaxed. Before you know it, you're chewing on pencils all during class.

You can teach yourself to relax and break the habit on your own, Feinberg says. When you are nervous, be aware of how you feel. Then "take 10 deep breaths very slowly and feel your body get calm. Do that two or three times a day," Feinberg suggests. He adds that "you can't be nervous and have calm breathing at the same time. They don't go together."

If your parents are upset with your habit and you really are trying to deal with it, ask them to gently remind you if they see you start to bite your nails. Chances are, your parents will be happy you're trying to break the habit and will want to help you.

Often, the habit will disappear as you get older. How many adults do you see biting their nails or chewing on pencils?

Kids and other readers can reach Emily Dwass by e-mail at

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