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Ask Dr. Sears: Hair-Pulling Habit

Q. My three-year-old daughter is in the habit of twirling and pulling out her hair. Now she has a bald spot. What causes her to do this, and what can I do to make her stop?

Three-year-olds are prone to annoying habits  -- but take heart in the fact that most are harmless, and self-correct with time and maturity. Here's how you can help your daughter grow back her hair in that bald spot.

Decide if the habit is a problem. Before trying to intervene, ask yourself if this is really a habit that needs to be broken. Here's a general rule of thumb to follow: If a habit is not harming your child or others, it's fine to ignore it. By doing so, they'll usually disappear on their own. If you intervene too forcefully, you risk pushing the child into more harmful and annoying habits. Both children and adults develop mannerisms to relieve tension. This may likely be your child's way of retreating into her own world and getting rid of stress. It also might be a way for her to feel in control of her body  -- as in, it's her hair and she can do whatever she wants to it! On the other hand, you could take this as an opportunity to help your child work out the reason for this habit.

Identify and remove the trigger. Make a journal listing what situations cause her to pull her hair. Could there be hidden stressors in your child's life that cause her to pull her hair? Intervene into these situations, and change them as much as you can.

Play show and tell. Convey to your child that you want her to protect the beauty of her body. Using a mirror, show your child the bald spot and tell her: "You have such pretty hair, and the pretty hair is no longer in that spot. Let's grow your pretty hair back!"

Teach a more suitable sub. One time-tested trick is to substitute one habit for an even less harmless one. For example, tell your child that when she feels like pulling her hair, to stroke her it instead. Or, suggest habits that are completely unrelated to her hair. Have her try taking a deep breath, counting to ten, squeezing her fingers with her other hand, or making a fist.

Play cover up. If the habit persists, leading to more hair pulling and even more bald spots, buy her some cute hats. Preschool girls love to play dress-up. Also, when she's wearing her hat, it's more difficult for her to get her hands on her hair  -- and she is more likely to use one of the substitute habits mentioned earlier.

Distract. When you see those little hands going toward her hair, distract her into a game or other activity that she may enjoy playing.

These parenting techniques will help increase your status with your child as a valuable resource to help her overcome a habit. Her ability to turn to you in times of need will pay off later, no matter what she may experience in her life.