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Hair-Pulling Disorder in Children

What is hair-pulling disorder?

Hair-pulling is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. People who have this disorder pull out hair from the scalp, eyelashes, eyebrows, or other parts of the body until they have bald patches.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of this disorder is not known. People often start hair-pulling around the ages of 12 or 13. Possible causes include:

  • The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way your child thinks, feels, or acts. People with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
  • Stress plays a part. Your child may be at higher risk due to problems such as a change of schools, abuse, family conflict, or the death of a loved one. If your child starts pulling their hair out at school age, it may be school-related stress.
  • Your child’s risk is higher if someone in the family has the disorder.

Hair-pulling may be a simple habit for a young child. For most children, hair pulling ends within 12 months. Children who start pulling hair before 6 years of age tend to do better than those who start later.

Hair-pulling may be a sign of anger, depression, or stress. Often young children find it hard to put feelings into words.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Constant tugging and twisting of hair
  • Repeatedly pulling enough hair over a long enough period of time to have bald spots on the head, or missing eyelashes, eyebrows, or other body hair
  • Repeatedly trying to stop hair pulling because it causes stress and other problems
  • Feeling very tense right before pulling out the hair or if they try to resist the urge to pull hair
  • Feeling pleasure or relief when pulling out the hair
  • Denying that they are pulling hair

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider or therapist will ask about your child's symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines the child is taking. He will make sure that your child does not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms.

How is it treated?

Several types of medicines can help. Your child’s healthcare provider will work with you to select the best medicine for your child. Your child may need to take more than one type of medicine. If a child has severe symptoms, both behavioral therapy and medicine may be best.

A mental health therapist can help your child to explore feelings and behaviors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a way to help your child identify and change views he has about himself, the world, and the future. CBT can make your child aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help your child learn new ways to think and act.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) helps your child accept that he can have thoughts and feelings without acting on them. It also helps your child learn ways to make changes and stick to goals.

Habit reversal training helps your child become aware of when he’s about to pull hair. Then your child does what is called a competing response. This means that, for example, when your child feels like he needs to pull hair, he would make a fist and keep his hand in his lap instead.

How can I help my child?

  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, take walks.
  • Take care of your child’s physical health. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet and gets enough sleep and exercise every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all of the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that your child takes. Make sure your child takes all medicines as directed by your provider or therapist. It is very important that your child takes his medicine even when feeling and thinking well. Without the medicine, your child’s symptoms may not improve or may get worse. Talk to your provider if your child has problems taking the medicine or if the medicines don't seem to be working.
  • Contact your child’s healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms seem to be getting worse.

Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-07
Last reviewed: 2014-10-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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