Care and Feeding

My Poor Child Won’t Stop Biting Her Nails

It looks so painful!

A little girl biting her nails.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Nicole is out today, so we’re publishing a few of her classic Care and Feeding letters.
Have a question? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

How can I get my 4-year-old daughter to stop biting her nails? She gets them right down to the quick and it looks painful.

— A Real Nail-Biter

Dear ARN,

Well, I’m 35, and the only thing that’s ever worked for me is “buying an expensive jade cocktail ring and wanting to be able to show it off in public without people recoiling at my horrible mangled hands,” which isn’t really great advice for a 4-year-old. The conventional options, of course, include: the gross-tasting stuff your daughter will get used to, bribery, constantly pushing her hands away from her mouth until you feel like you’ve lost your mind, and telling her that’s how you get worms.“

As it happens, I recently had to take a crack at this with one of my own kids and can recommend getting her a chewy necklace. These ones look like a piece of Lego, you can run them through the dishwasher, no one at school has ever batted an eye at it (a teacher told me she has started recommending them for hair-chewing and sleeve-slurping as well), and after a few months of redirecting them to the necklace, the habit was broken (and eventually the necklace became unnecessary).

Keep an eye on your daughter’s general anxiety level: Many of us who are truly committed oral fixators do it to deal with stress, and it may be easier to fix the behavior if you can isolate some contributing factors at play. Or she might just love the taste of man-flesh! Best of luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have an 11-year-old son who will not sleep in his own bed. My husband and I didn’t mind co-sleeping when the kids were small. My older son gravitated to his own bed as he got older, and it was always a non-issue. My 11-year-old, however, didn’t make that kind of progress. If I laid down with him and read, he would fall asleep in his bed and I would eventually relocate to our own room. Around 1 a.m., my son would then come into our bed and sleep between my husband and I for the rest of the night.

This all got even worse about a year ago when my son was diagnosed with a chronic and serious medical condition. I think he has a fear of dying and feels more secure with me around to check on him. I will sometimes sleep in his bed (I know this is not good), but his condition does require nightly check-ins and sometimes I am just exhausted.

How do I break this habit? Looking ahead, I can’t handle sleeping with a teenager in my bed between my husband and me. Not only is it a real “blocker,” it is not helping my son grow up to be independent. I need intervention soon. I tried bribing, I tried counseling for him, I am at a loss. Since my son’s diagnosis, my husband and I do not have sleepovers without him; our only break is a camp which my son can go to with nurses and doctors on call. He doesn’t want to go this year.

Any advice would be appreciated.

— I Want My Bed Back

Dear IWMBB,

Ooooof. I’m so sorry, you’re obviously deeply frazzled and running out of ideas.

I have to admit I was taken aback by “I think he has a fear of dying.” This is a big deal! This is not something to be casual about. I know you’ve tried counseling for him, which is great, but it sounds as though your son has a serious medical issue which is absolutely impacting his mental health. Not to mention that if his condition genuinely requires several nightly check-ins, it seems extremely understandable that he would be fearful and hesitant to sleep alone.

I would try to be as clear and transparent with him as possible about the nature of his condition. Is he a full partner in your conversations with his doctors? If not, he needs to be. The last thing you want is for him to be imagining increasingly dire scenarios and processing them on his own. Reach out to his pediatrician and his other medical team members for support. Reach out to organizations for seriously ill children for better resources. I’d love to see him spend more time talking with other kids coping with these issues. Perhaps a shorter stay at camp might be something he’d be more open to?

Now, as for the more concrete issue of keeping him in his own bed, I think you and your husband need to sit down with him and say that you know it will be difficult, but it’s now time for him to fall asleep solo and remain in his own room all night. You can try to come up with a mutual agreement (read two books together before you leave, etc.), but you will probably get a lot of pushback.

You can’t physically make him sleep in his own bed, but you can draw a boundary around your own sleeping space, likely involving locking your door. Tell him you’ll stop by for whatever check-ins are recommended by his team, but that your room is now off-limits at night.

You’re going to get through this, but it’s not going to be easy.

Read the original column.

· If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 13-year-old daughter (J) who is bright, funny, and compassionate. She identifies as pansexual, although she has never mentioned any crushes or the like to me. She has a female friend with whom she is very close and I always sort of assumed that this friend was possibly her first crush, although J has never said this. In fact, she seems rather dismissive and bemused by her peers’ crushes and relationships. She’s mentioned some schoolmates who have sexually experimented—with an air of disapproval. I replied that I agreed sexual experience at age 13 was not a fantastic idea, but that safety was my primary concern, and we’ve discussed birth control and the like before.

All this is well and good. But recently I was driving her father’s car and found an envelope in the center console. It was addressed to J, and I opened it. I know this is wrong and bad, but J often gets notes of encouragement from her church confirmation instructor and some of her teachers, and I figured it was one of those.

It wasn’t. It was a note J wrote to herself. In it, she encouraged herself to work hard in school and love herself and love God. It also said that she is “so close to 18” and hopefully will be able to “be with Patrick soon.” Initially I was surprised that the note referenced a boy instead of a girl … but quickly I became concerned with the references to turning 18 and “being with.” Is she planning to run off? Who the heck is Patrick?? I’ve literally never heard her mention the name. I’m halfway worried he’s some online predator.

Normally, if I had found this information via honest means, I would just ask her. We’ve talked about online safety before. But I don’t know how to ask who Patrick is, if she’s planning anything about “being with him,” etc., without explaining that I found, opened, and read her note. We have a very open line of communication, and I could see something like this blowing that up. I hate to destroy our mutual trust over (possibly) a harmless crush, but I would hate it worse if I ignored something that became dangerous.
Please help!

— Who the Heck Is Patrick??

Dear WtHIP,

I think the best way through this is to sit down with your lovely daughter, look her straight in the eyes, and apologize sincerely and truly for having invaded her privacy. Kids never forget the moments when their parents apologize to them, and I think this will be a completely necessary forerunner to any real conversation.

Then you need to tell her what you read and ask who Patrick is. I’m hoping Patrick is a sweet kid from school/church whom she has dippy 13-year-old dreams of being with once she’s grown. I am also concerned he’s an online creeper. Tell her that she is not in trouble, either way, but you need to know who he is (and ideally, meet him). Follow your instincts from there.

The worst-case result of telling her about the privacy invasion is that she loses her trust in you for a prolonged period of time (that’s bad). The worst-case result of pretending you saw nothing is that some 40-year-old from Des Moines is catfishing her for nudes and possibly more.

One other thing that occurs to me is that she left this note in the console of her dad’s car, a place it would almost certainly be found. I am not entirely clear that this was not, on some level, a cry for help. Which makes it all the more important to take it seriously.

I think you know what to do here.

Read the original column.

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 9-year-old daughter heard about the viral video hoax Momo from friends at school and is now scared. She has returned to wanting her lights on all night and has trouble falling asleep. For background information, she has always been a child that is scared of seemingly harmless things (including Disney movies), and as parents, we have blocked content on her iPad so that she only has access to Netflix (with the kids settings on), PBS Kids, and apps to help her practice her math facts.

After she told us about her fears, we talked with her about real versus fake videos (and how videos are made, including showing her how green screens work) and about other characters she knows to be fake, such as mascots from professional sports teams. (She knows there is a person inside the costume.)

How else do we try to talk to her to calm her fear? We struggle with the understanding that it is something she is genuinely scared of and trying to be sensitive to that fear.

— I Hate Momo

Dear I Hate Momo,

Momo is the worst. You are doing a tremendously good job! I’m particularly impressed with the green screen idea, which is a piece of advice that a lot of parents can use to pull back the curtain on scary images.

For now, I would let her keep the lights on until she is ready to go back to her normal routine. I think she probably feels a little sheepish and knows on some level that other kids are a bit more resilient around this stuff than she is, so it would be great for you and your partner to talk about what images or movies scared you as a child, and how you eventually worked through it. Letting her regress for a short time is no big deal (lights on, you staying with her for a night or two until she falls asleep, reading her stories that are a little “babyish” for her age but you know she loves, etc.).

I would privately dig around on the internet for some of the joke Momo images meant to redirect kids from these fears. Being able to laugh at Momo is the first step! I remember being terrified by the Red Bull in The Last Unicorn and my parents having zero idea how to get me over it. Time, of course, is what got me over it, but if there had been funny memes mocking the Red Bull, I bet I would have bounced back more quickly.

This will pass, and I wish a pox on the news reports that get parents all het up about fake dangers to their kids, thus fanning what should be completely ephemeral and transient stories into front-page news.

Read the original column.

— Nicole