My 5-year-old girl is pet­ri­fied of hav­ing her nails cut

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Family - John Sharry Send your queries to health@irish­ 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 so­lu­


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 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.


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 their anx­i­ety to peak and the child 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.

Choose 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 do the next one only 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).


A nail clip­pers al­lows you to only cut a small bit of nail in the first in­stance, and may be a more ac­cept­able step-by-step so­lu­tion.

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