All of a sudden you see your child plucking out strands of her hair. You’ve noticed a bald spot on her head, and her eyebrows are getting thinner and thinner. She may have trichotillomania, often called hair-pulling disorder, the compulsive urge to pull out one’s own hair. Ruth Golomb, author of The Hair Pulling “Habit” and You: How to Solve the Trichotillomania Puzzle, gives some advice on what to do next.
Seek Professional Help
Trichotillomania is a disorder, not a phase that will harmlessly pass. The majority of kids affected by it are “automatic” hair pullers, meaning they pull unconsciously and may not remember doing so. The Trichotillomania Learning Center can help you find people who help treat the disorder itself, as well as therapists who can help guide your family through the emotions surrounding the disorder, and can provide plenty of information and support.
It’s common for parents to assume that if a child simply tried hard enough, she would be able to stop the behavior. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. “It is a tenacious, challenging behavior to manage, and if it were easy to resist, the child would be able to do so without help,” Golomb says. As a parent, it’s best to think of hair-pulling as an illness: something that’s not the child’s fault, but that can be overcome.
“Parents often feel that it is helpful to point out to the child when hair-pulling is occurring,” says Golomb. “This may start out being helpful, but it quickly feels like nagging to the child who is struggling with this behavior.” How can you tell when you’re stepping over the line? Have an honest conversation with your kid about what would be the most helpful reaction for you to have when you observe her pulling her hair.
Help Your Child Deal With Stress
Sure, all children have some amount of stress in their lives—a challenging school project, a fallout with a friend or a spat with a sibling—but normal stressors can cause kids with trichotillomania to pull more often. “The goal for children with hair pulling is to help them learn how to cope well with life’s normal stresses in a productive way that does not include pulling out hair,” says Golomb.
Find Someone to Talk To
Arrange for your child to meet others with the same condition, either in person or online, which can be a deeply rewarding and therapeutic experience. And she’s not the only one who could use support: You should also find a support group or online forum to meet other parents of children with trichotillomania.
Prepare Your Child
Most trichotillomania professionals know how to approach kids in a way that is non-confrontational and even fun, but giving your child information about the therapist beforehand can help smooth over the transition. You might say something like, “We are going to see someone who knows a lot about certain things that kids do, like pulling hair. He’ll talk to us about it and help us figure out what to do.”
Be an Advocate
You can offer teachers or school counselors some educational information about hair-pulling to make sure that they fully understand the condition. If your child is willing, you may want to have a conference with the teacher where you both can explain the situation.
Help Avoid Embarrassment
Kids who pull their hair are often embarrassed over their hair loss, and they have to decide how to deal with peers noticing. If your kid wants to try a creative hairstyle, a hairpiece or a hair system, help her experiment. If she chooses not to hide the hair loss, support her unconditionally. Decide together how both of you will deal with questions—you may want to suggest glossing over the truth with a face-saving explanation, such as an allergy that causes hair loss, alopecia.
Keep Things Normal
If your child feels that all of your conversations revolve around her hair, it can actually impede her progress. Instead, talk about other areas of her life, such as friends, schoolwork, hobbies or talents. Don’t allow this issue put a stop to the rest of the joys of her childhood.
Take Care of Yourself
It can be easy to feel that you should be spending all your emotional energy to help your kid overcome the problem. But it’s important to take time for yourself each day to read, play a computer game or exercise. Have “in-the-moment” solutions ready, such as taking a walk to excuse yourself and avoid saying something unproductive. Since you are a strong player in the quest to help your child, taking care of yourself is actually a selfless act in the bigger picture.
Trichotillomania is most commonly seen at ages 9 through 13, but it can start as early as infancy and stretch through adulthood. As soon as you notice hair-pulling, you should immediately take productive action.