Q: My eight-year-old son has had a habit of hair twirling since he was a baby. He’s had very short hair for the past three years now because he just twirls his hair whenever it gets to be a little too long. I have noticed recently that he now twirls his friends’ hair (instead of his) at school, as well as mine and his father’s. Should this recent hair twirling on others be a concern?
A: You are right on, hair twirling is a habit and 99 percent of the time, not a cause for concern. Much like thumb-sucking or nail biting, it usually starts out as a way of self-soothing.
While cutting his hair short has prevented your son from twirling his own hair, he is likely looking for a way to meet his self-soothing need by twirling others’ hair. At eight, he should be able to understand the idea of respecting personal space. His friends may or may not be tolerant now; at some point, one of them will ask him to stop.
Try redirecting your son’s behaviour when he’s at home. Give him an alternative self-soothing strategy, such as a worry stone (a smooth stone he can rub) or a fidget toy. Habits are behaviours we often do without really thinking. Help your son to be more aware of what he is doing and why; then give him more socially acceptable alternatives. You might want to have a look at Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews’ wonderful What to Do When Bad Habits Take Hold: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Nail Biting and More.
In about two percent of the population, hair twirling can lead to trichotrillomania, a compulsion that involves pulling out one’s hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Your child twirling others’ hair suggests a habit rather than a compulsion to pull his own hair. Raising his awareness and some gentle redirection will likely do the trick.