My 5-year-old girl is petrified of having her nails cut?
I had hoped she would grow out of this but, if anything, she seems to be getting worse
Lots of young children develop a specific fear of having their nails cut
My five-year-old daughter is petrified of me cutting her nails. Every time I take the nail scissors out she starts screaming as if I am going to cut her fingers off. I have tried to explain that everyone needs their nails cut, that they get too long and that she will scratch herself and others (when they do get too long she can be lethal in fights with her sister!). I also remind her that we need to keep them short to stop all the black dirt collecting underneath. She doesn’t care about any explanation I give her. As a result it becomes a battle with her crying and me trying my best to clip one or two of them. I have to get my husband involved each time we do the nails – with one of us trying to soothe her and the other trying to cut the nails. I had hoped she would grow out of this behaviour but, if anything, she seems to be getting worse. Each time I try it is the same reaction. I find myself putting off cutting her nails and they are now getting too long. Do you have any advice?
Lots of young children develop a specific fear of having their nails cut. While cutting nails shouldn’t be painful, sometimes these children have a specific experience of having their nails cut too short where the soft part under their nail gets clipped and this is indeed painful – this will of course put them off having their nails cut the next time. Sometimes in the struggle to get the nails cut, when a child is moving and wriggling, parents can accidently prick or cut their children, which can reinforce their bad experience. Sometimes children have no previous experience of being hurt but still develop a phobia of having their nails cut, perhaps because they don’t like the sensation of the blade close to the tips of their fingers or perhaps because they imagine the experience to be painful and they can’t get this image out of their head. Like all phobias and fears, they are primarily emotional reactions and habits and they are frequently difficult to reason away with solid explanations.
When children are younger it is particularly difficult to reason with them and get their agreement about cutting the nails. Once you get into a battle with them or try and force them to have their nails cut, this can cause a peaking in their anxiety and the children can have a meltdown. This is not only unpleasant for parent and child, it makes getting the job done much harder and sometimes impossible. I like the fact that you try to soothe and comfort your daughter as you do the nails and this is certainly important in helping her cope. However, taking two parents for the task is clearly not sustainable in the long term and you want to help your child cope a bit better. Below are some possible solutions that might work
Approach the problem gradually
As with most fears, the strategy of tackling the fear in small steps is a good one. Before tackling her nails again, perhaps take time out to show her the nail scissors and how it works. Reassure her that you are not cutting her own nails on this occasion and give her time to hold the scissors and to use it to cut paper or other materials. The next step might be to show her how you cut your own nails using the scissors with no ill effects and then the next step might be to cut a small bit of nail off one of her fingers. The goal of the gradual approach is not to rush – only when she is relaxed and comfortable about one step, can you proceed to the next one. You want to go at her pace and get her agreement to try the next step.
Pick a good cutting implement
While a good nail scissors might be the most efficient way to get the job done, some other implements may be easier and more acceptable to your daughter. For example, you might use a nail clippers that makes it easier not to over-cut a nail and potentially hurt your daughter. Also a nail clippers allows you to only cut a small bit of nail in the first instance, and so may be a more acceptable step-by-step solution for your daughter. In addition, it may be possible to use a nail file instead of a scissors or clippers and this might feel better for your daughter. Take time to show her the nail file and to demonstrate how it works on your own nails before suggesting you try it on her nails. Once again, a gradual approach might work best. Start with one nail and then take a break to see how she feels and only do the next one when she is ready.
Changing the time when you cut nails
Changing the time when you cut nails can make a difference. Doing it after a bath can be less stressful when the nails are soft and much easier to cut. Also, some parents cut their children’s nails at night when they are asleep. This is a good way of avoiding the problem altogether, though you need to make sure your daughter is in a deep enough sleep not to wake up during the cutting.
Using rewards and explanations
Using rewards can help a child to face their fears and to get through something unpleasant. For example, as you soothe her through the nail cutting, remind her that you will can give her a small treat for being brave and getting the job done. Once she gets into the habit of cutting her nails and realising it is not uncomfortable it will all be come easier. There are also some useful books that you can read with her to prepare that explain the importance of keeping clean and cutting nails such as Wash, Scrub, Brush: A book about keeping clean (Wonderwise).
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. His new book ‘Bringing up happy confident children’ is now available. See solutiontalk.ie.