Wednesday 17 January 2018

Dear David Coleman: My daughter is pulling her hair out of her head

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Photo posed
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. I've recently had a new baby. My two-year-old daughter was quite distressed throughout the week I was in hospital having my son. This surprised us, as she didn't show any sign of anxiety or upset leading up to the event. She has always twirled her hair to relax herself but during this period the twirling intensified and has continued at that level, to the point that she has pulled out a lot of hair and has a very big bald patch. I'm on maternity leave so she's with me throughout the day. Is there anything we can do to help the hair situation, do you think?

David replies: From your description, the hair-twirling was a self-soothing behaviour for your daughter. If she became very distressed while you were away for the week having her brother, then it makes good sense that she relied more on the hair-twirling to cope with what has probably been quite an anxiety-provoking time for her.

It is often the case that small children show little anticipatory anxiety about the arrival of a new sibling, because they are living, very much, in the 'now' with little capacity to think ahead or plan for the future.

Even if your daughter could plan ahead, the chances are she wouldn't have a clue what to expect with the arrival of a new baby.

Think about your own anticipation of your daughter before her birth. Even though you could imagine what it might be like, the reality of having your daughter was probably very significantly different to what you may have expected.

So, your daughter was probably quite relaxed. The only difference she may have noticed, prior to the birth was that your tummy was bigger and that you may have been more tired and less physically able to do all the things you might have done before the pregnancy advanced.

There were several factors that might have prompted your daughter's anxiety. In the first instance, you had to be in the hospital for a week. That separation may have been very stressful for her. She might have missed you a lot, and missed the comfort and security that you may offer.

Hopefully her dad was available to mind her, but if he had to work then some of her typical routines may have been disrupted. So, for the week that you weren't there she may have been trying to cope with lots of unpredictability.

Since you have come home from hospital, things have also been very different to before and probably quite out-of-routine. For a start, there is the fact that you are around all the time. Although nice, it is a change for her if you usually work outside the home. Then there is the new baby and the fact that your time and attention are now divided.

All of these factors may have increased her anxiety and so, the hair-twirling has probably increased to help her reduce her anxiety and to soothe herself.

Some of the intense hair-twirling may reduce in time as she settles into the routine of her expanded family and as she gets used to having you around, sharing your time between her and her brother. Acknowledging how hard it can be to be a big sister might also help.

You might also want to try to set aside some special time for her with lots of physical cuddles, warmth and minding. Your calming and soothing presence may help to reduce the intensity of the anxieties or stresses that she is facing since the birth.

To help her reduce the hair-pulling behaviour (which she may not even be aware she is doing), you will probably need to find some other tactile thing she can do with her fingers that might satisfy her, that you can distract her towards, when you notice her pulling or twirling her hair.

So, something like a natural sheepskin, a fidget spinner, a squeezy 'stress ball' or some flexible, non-toxic play putty, like marla, might suffice.

Having something else to do with her fingers, while she feels relaxed and soothed, will hopefully help her to wind herself down or soothe herself at times of stress.

Be kind and patient with yourselves too. A lot has changed for you both and you also need some time to adjust. As you settle into the new dynamic of your expanded family you may find that the whole family relaxes more.

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