Q: My 13-year-old daughter has started pulling out her hair. She sometimes doesn’t even realize she’s doing it, but other times, the urge is so strong that she can’t control it. She wants to stop, but can’t. How can I help her?
A: This compulsive behaviour is called trichotillomania. It usually starts in adolescence and affects more girls than boys. People with trichotillomania often describe a feeling of increasing tension when they try not to pull at their hair, and a sense of great relief, even pleasure, when they give in to the need. Hair pulling is an addictive behaviour that serves a soothing function, similar to biting nails or picking at skin. Your daughter probably started pulling out her hair as a reaction to a specific stressful event, and it has now evolved into a habit to distract her from uncomfortable feelings she doesn’t know how to deal with. Many teens who pull their hair also suffer from depression and anxiety.
In some children, trichotillomania eventually disappears. Often, though, the help of a qualified children’s mental health professional is required. Try not to reprimand or nag your daughter, and provide her with lots of opportunities to talk about any stress and problems that may lead her to pull her hair. Parents, too, will often benefit from meeting with a therapist for regular parent support and guidance while their child receives treatment. With effective help, most children overcome their hair-pulling urges by learning to cope with their feelings in healthier ways, and their hair usually grows back.