Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ask a Behavior Analyst: Finger Biting

Hi Everybody,  now that I have introduced myself and my field via a simple video I am ready to answer your questions*.   If you have a question for me, feel free to email me at paranoidstayathomemom@gmail.com.

And now for the first question.     

I have a 3 year old daughter who was addicted to her pacifiers from the day she was born.  We tried to wean her off her pacifier slowly, having her toss them as she chewed through them.  She threw the last one away about a month before her brother was born (6 months ago).  We decided to use a different type of pacifier with him to avoid tempting her (which has worked) but she has been chewing her fingers since the last pacifier was gone.  I can't get the skin to heal.  and one finger on each hand is not only gross but has missing skin and bleeds easily.  What can I do to break her of this habit?  We have tried asking her to sop, we have tried taking her hand out of her mouth and covering it but she just chews on the cover.  

Oh man.  I feel you on this one.  My daughter went through nearly the same thing when we weaned her off her pacifier.  Except she was a lip picker (scabby, bloody lips look darling in pictures, let me tell you).  So I am not going to sugar coat it, habits like these (thumb sucking, fingernail biting, lip picking) are hard to break.  You can't just take away her finger like you could take away her pacifier.

To start off with, I am going to make an assumption and it is a big one.  But first I have to digress a little into basic behavior analysis.  Bear with me.  In general, the reason behind a behavior can be broken down into one of four categories (behavior analysts call these "functions of behavior" because we like to sound fancy and scientific.
  1.  Attention:  Kids behave a certain way so that people pay attention to them.  Example :  Joe does his homework because he likes his teacher to tell him, "Good Job." 
  2.  Escape/Avoidance:  Kids do a certain thing to get out of a task.  Example:  When Suzy cries, her mom doesn't make her do her homework.  
  3. Tangible:  A kid does a behavior to get something.  Example.  Emily does her homework because her mom gives her a quarter for every sheet she completes.  
  4. Sensory:  A kid does a behavior because of something internal.  This behavior does not rely on the environment and thus is the hardest to change.  Example.  Tom does his homework because he likes the feeling of completeness.  
Anyway, back to the finger biting.  I am assuming that your daughter is doing it for a SENSORY reason (this is the most common function). So my advice only applies if that is the case.  If you think she is doing it to get attention, or get out of doing things, write back.  I'll give you a whole different approach.  

The first step is to limit the environments where she is allowed to bite her fingers.  If it were me, I would limit it to her bed.  Every time I saw her biting her fingers, I would say "Oh, you must be tired" and send her to bed.  Yes, this will be exhausting at first but you want her to have to choose between biting her fingers and doing something fun.  No watching her favorite TV show while nibbling on her fingers.  Just be matter of fact about it, and consistent. 

Second, I would try to think of something she could do instead of nibbling her fingers.  Replace the behavior.  You will have to experiment here.  Your job is to figure out if it is her fingers that need to be kept busy, or her mouth.  Is it that she likes the sensory experience of putting something in her mouth, or the sensory feeling of picking at her fingers?  Maybe try something to keep her fingers busy.  Silly Putty?  Or have her wear silly banz that she can fiddle with.  You could also give her something that is okay to chew on (teether?) or a satisfying chewy food.  You will probably have to try several things before you find something that sort of works.  And truthfully, it will never be as fulfilling to her as chewing her fingers but it might help break the habit.

Finally I would write her a little story.  I know it sounds weird but if your daughter likes reading she may be really receptive to a book about herself (a lot of kids are).  I am posting the one I made for my daughter to give you an idea.  As you can see, it is very simple and I let her color it herself.  And I am not an artist.    You could also use actual photographs instead of illustrations, if you prefer.

The one thing I wished I had had in my book was a page about how "sometimes it feels good to pick your lips".  Whenever I said that to my daughter, she really appreciated the validation.

Good luck!  and let me know how it goes.

*This probably goes without saying but since I only know what you told me in your one little paragraph, my answers are, by necessity, more general in nature and may not apply perfectly to your situation and child.  


  1. Great answer, Taylor. I am interested to hear how things go with her daughter.

  2. Taylor, your advice is stellar. Thanks for never charging me! :)

  3. Actually I think you hit it on the nose! She mostly does it when she is watching TV or other times she would have a pacifier, and she chews on other things if they are nearby, like her sleep items at night. Thank you so much we will be trying this. Much more helpful than her pediatrician who just seems to worry about the wounds on her fingers.

  4. You are brilliant! Thanks for sharing your expertise, Taylor!