Hair-pulling in children and adolescents may be perceived as a harmless habit. After all, if your child likes to pull, say 3-5 strands of hair a day, it shouldn’t make much difference to his or her scalp and hair health. The amount of hair that falls off naturally probably exceeds the couple of strands kids and teens pull for fun anyways. When should hair pulling become a concern?
Hair-pulling behavior can range in severity from mild to severe. There are those who ritualize hair-pulling for aesthetic purposes, e.g. getting rid daily of the strands that don’t fall obediently with the rest, or hair considered as “dead”. There are others who pull hair strands when they’re frustrated or upset. And then there are those who suffer from an impulse control disorder called trichotillomania – compulsive hair-pulling that can be so bad, sufferers end up with permanent patches of baldness.
What’s Behind Compulsive Hair-Pulling?
Like many impulse control disorders, compulsive hair-pulling is caused by a feeling of incredible tension and anxiety. For some reason, hair-pulling relieves the tension and anxiety. Once the hair-pulling is done, the child or teen with trichotillomania feels an immediate sense of release, gratification and even pleasure. This dynamic of “tension-behavior-relief” is what makes hair-pulling addictive, progressive and after a while, very difficult to resist.
Hair-pulling in trichotillomania is often concentrated on the hair on the head, although sufferers may also focus on eyelashes, eyebrows, moustache and beard, and hair from other places of the body. Hair-pulling can be of individual strands, although more serious versions of the illness have patients pulling clumps at a time.
Are There Serious Health Effects?
At first, hair-pulling may not cause any physical harm to hair follicles and the scalp. If compulsive hair-pulling can be stopped early, hair growth resumes normally. But in severe cases, repeated hair-pulling can irreversibly damage hair follicles, inhibiting the ability of hair to grow, resulting in permanent baldness.
How can Parents Help Kids and Teens with Hair-Pulling Problems?
There are many ways parents can assist their children with compulsive hair-pulling.
First, it helps to understand that compulsive hair-pulling behavior is an impulse control disorder. This means that it won’t go away by simply telling your child to stop. In fact, unless your child is too young to understand the impact of his or her condition, your child likely already wants to stop — except that he or she can’t seem to quit.
What parents can do is address the tension and anxiety that causes hair-pulling behavior. Hair-pulling is essentially a coping mechanism, a way to get relief from stress. This is not as irrational as it sounds, and may have a biological basis. When our bodies feel pain, such as after the hurt caused by hair-pulling, our brain releases natural pain relievers that makes us feel good. It’s this feeling that people with trichotillomania like and chase, not the act of pulling hair. Although reducing stress will help the child have less intense episodes of hair-pulling, it will not cure the condition. A cure generally requires therapy. However, parents can reduce stress by being careful not to yell at the child or use harsh discipline, help manage the child’s academic load by consulting with teachers as necessary, limit the amount of marital conflict they display in front of their child and so on. In addition, they can teach their child healthy ways to release stress such as through exercise, the use of natural remedies like Bach Flower Remedies (consult a practitioner for best results), use of aromatherapy (consult a book or a practitioner for ideas), use of yoga, breathing techniques, EFT (emotional freedom technique) and other self-help strategies.
It’s best if parents can see professional help for their child who is pulling hair. Professionals can set up a cognitive-behavioral therapy to help decrease hair-pulling.
At the end of the day, compulsive hair pulling is not really about hair, nor about beauty and appearance. It’s about internal regulation and emotional management. If symptoms persist or worsen despite the interventions listed above, then parents are recommended to consult a psychologist or psychiatrist.