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Association of nail biting and psychiatric disorders in children and their parents in a psychiatrically referred sample of children

Ahmad Ghanizadeh

Author Affiliations

Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Hafez Hospital, Shiraz, Iran

Director of Research Center for Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, Hafez Hospital, Shiraz, Iran

Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2008, 2:13  doi:10.1186/1753-2000-2-13

Published: 2 June 2008



Nail biting (NB) is a very common unwanted behavior. The majority of children are motivated to stop NB and have already tried to stop it, but are generally unsuccessful in doing so. It is a difficult behavior to modify or treat. The objective of this study was to investigate the prevalence of co-morbid psychiatric disorders in a clinical sample of children with NB who present at a child and adolescent mental healthcare outpatient clinic and the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in their parents.


A consecutive sample of 450 referred children was examined for NB and 63 (14%) were found to have NB. The children and adolescents with nail biting and their parents were interviewed according to DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. They were also asked about lip biting, head banging, skin biting, and hair pulling behaviors.


Nail biting is common amongst children and adolescents referred to a child and adolescent mental health clinic. The most common co-morbid psychiatric disorders in these children were attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (74.6%), oppositional defiant disorder (36%), separation anxiety disorder (20.6%), enuresis (15.6%), tic disorder (12.7%) and obsessive compulsive disorder (11.1%). The rates of major depressive disorder, mental retardation, and pervasive developmental disorder were 6.7%, 9.5%, 3.2%, respectively. There was no association between the age of onset of nail biting and the co-morbid psychiatric disorder. Severity and frequency of NB were not associated with any co-morbid psychiatric disorder. About 56.8% of the mothers and 45.9% of the fathers were suffering from at least one psychiatric disorder. The most common psychiatric disorder found in these parents was major depression.


Nail biting presents in a significant proportion of referrals to a mental healthcare clinic setting. Nail biting should be routinely looked for and asked for in the child and adolescent mental healthcare setting because it is common in a clinical population, easily visible in consultation and relatively unintrusive to ask about. If present, its detection can then be followed by looking for other more subtle stereotypic or self-mutilating behaviors.