Trichotillomania, also known as compulsive hair pulling, is a form of self-injury. Like other self-harming behaviors, compulsive hair pulling can stem from unresolved emotional distress or trauma and can quickly turn into a virulent habit or addiction even in very young children.
Hair pullers pull out the hair from their scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, or other parts of the body, often causing noticeable bald spots. Many do so uncontrollably for hours each day. Hair pulling doesn’t hurt a compulsive hair puller. In fact, most report the behavior as soothing. It is estimated to affect up to fifteen million Americans.
In order to help your child deal with Trichotillomania, keep these tips in mind.
Stay Calm. Do your best not to react emotionally to your child’s hair pulling. Above all, don’t shame your child! Don’t judge or ridicule her. For some kids pulling may simply a passing phase. A strong emotional reaction or insensitive comment from a parent or authority figure can sometimes reinforce or strengthen a problem behavior such as hair pulling. Find positive ways to encourage your child rather than providing negative responses to behaviors you don’t want to encourage.
Look at the Big Picture. If it continues, keep in mind that hair pulling is a coping mechanism. It is a way that your child has found to deal with uncomfortable emotional or life difficulties she has encountered. The behavior may not make sense to you or others and even your child may have no conscious memory of how or why it began.
Don’t Get Stuck On Your Child’s Pulling Or Bald Patches. These are only symptoms of the deeper issue. It’s best to view compulsive behaviors through a system-wide lens. Just as the bald patches are a symptom of the pulling, the pulling behavior is a symptom of underlying issues. These issues may be emotional, mental (beliefs) and/or spiritual. With the right assistance, your child can heal her hair pulling and associated issues.
Don’t Pressure Your Child to Control Her Pulling. Chances are that if she could control it she would have already done so. Yelling, belittling or trying to control her behavior will only make the situation worse.
Don’t Accept Easy Diagnostic Labels. Question conventional outlooks about compulsion. For your child’s sake, become a cultural warrior– someone who is a unique and critical thinker. Parents often are told that their child has an incurable brain chemistry problem. Actually, to date, this is simply a theory that has never been proven. There is so much more that you can do to help your child than to accept this diagnosis.
Learn About Addiction, Especially Behavioral Addiction. Act quickly to help your child. Hair pulling begins as a way to cope but can quickly turn into a serious addiction. Once addiction sets in there will be two problems that need solving; 1) the original coping behavior and 2) the addiction. This is especially difficult for parents of very young children to believe because it’s hard to accept that a small child may already have an ingrained addiction.
Take Personal Responsibility. Take a look at your own coping strategies; how do you model dealing with your feelings? Developing a coping behavior like hair pulling can be learned within family and other cultural settings. Hair pulling may be unfamiliar to you but if you look around your family with an open mind you may see odd ways that your family or culture deals with life’s challenges. Children are clever; they may learn a particular style of coping but figure out a unique twist to make a solution their own.
Let Your Child’s Age Determine Her Level of Responsibility in Healing. As the parent of a very young child your sphere of influence is nearly total. As your child grows that sphere begins to diminish until eventually you have very little influence indeed.
In my experience, depending on the age of your hair pulling child, you may be able to relieve her of her pulling behavior and may, in fact, be the only one who can truly help. This is why to whatever extent you are able to take responsibility for helping your child, you must do so. No one else can fill this role for you.
Abby Leora Rohrer is an expert on compulsive hair pulling and author of What’s Wrong With Pulling My Hair Out? and Pull-Free, At Last!, an at-home program for ending Trichotillomania. Visit www.123trichotillomaniafree.com or http://www.pullfreeatlast.com or call 303/546-0788 for more information.