Causes of Hair Twirling in Older Children, Toddlers and Adults & Ways to Stop Hair Twirling

Many people have a common habit of coiling their hair around the finger and pulling it again and again in a circle. This habit, known as hair twirling, is a widespread habit, and most of us are guilty of having done it at some point in our lives. However, frequently twirling your hair is a part of behaviors known as ‘fidgets.’ Children, in particular, are likely to twirl their hair as a way of self-soothing. They may be hair-twirling to calm their anxiety, to wind down before going to sleep, or even to just deal with boredom.

However, while the habit of hair twirling is usually dismissed as a nervous habit or normal fidgeting, it can sometimes be indicative of an underlying health problem. Read on to find out more about twirling your hair and can it be a sign of something more.

What is Hair Twirling?

Hair twirling is a term used to describe a common habit amongst people of wrapping their hair around a finger in a circle and then pulling on it. While we mostly observe this habit in children, but many adults are also prone to doing it.(1,2,3) Hair twirling is done for a variety of reasons which may include simple boredom to relieving anxiety and stress. Children are more likely to twirl their hair as a way to calm their anxiety, self-soothe themselves before they go to bed, or even to deal with boredom. Twirling your hair is classified as part of a group of behaviors that are known as ‘fidgets.’ While most of the time, twirling your habit is just a simple nervous habit, sometimes it can be a symptom of an underlying health problem. At the same time, twirling your hair can also cause damage to your hair, resulting in split ends, hair breakage, and knots.(4,5)

Are there are Side Effects of Hair Twirling?

There can be several side effects of twirling your hair. Some of these may include:

  • Split ends
  • Bald patches
  • Hair loss
  • Tangled and knotted hair
  • Hair breakage
  • Weak strands

It is also possible that hair twirling escalates from a simple nervous habit or a childhood distraction to become a more body-focused repetitive behavior. There is also a school of thought that habits of hair twirling can ultimately lead to trichotillomania. Trichotillomania is a type of mental health condition that causes a person to have an overwhelming or uncontrollable urge to pull out their own hair.(6,7,8)

Causes of Hair Twirling in Older Children and Toddlers

Hair twirling in children is likely to start as a coping mechanism to deal with fatigue or stress during the toddler years. As a child, it is challenging to express complex emotions or control the surroundings while sometimes causes the body to take over, creating a physical coping mechanism that helps the child calm down. However, there are some experts who believe that hair twirling can also be a symptom of autism.

Hair twirling is a form of self-stimulation or stimming. Some other examples of stimming including drumming your fingers, biting your nails, and constantly jiggling your foot. While stimming is not always associated with autism, but certain stimming behaviors have been linked to a diagnosis of autism.(9) Some repetitive behaviors that are often linked to autism include:(10,11)

  • Rocking back and forth
  • Walking of tiptoes or pacing
  • Jumping
  • Twirling
  • Bouncing
  • Flapping hands
  • Flicking or snapping fingers

In cases where a child has already been diagnosed with autism, hair twirling can be identified as a destructive behavior that needs to be taken care of. However, hair twirling as a standalone symptom is not enough to directly indicate that your child needs to be checked for autism.

Causes of Hair Twirling in Adults

Though hair twirling is more commonly observed in children, some adults may also have a habit of twirling their hair. While it is possible that the habit carried over from childhood, but it could also be a symptom of an underlying health condition.

It is possible that you were in the habit of twirling your hair when you were a child, and the habit never went away. There are some studies that suggest that there is a link between hair twirling and boredom, impatience, dissatisfaction, and frustration.(12)

The habit of hair twirling can relieve boredom and also help a person wind down when they are feeling tired and frustrated. If you find that you only tend to twirl your hair when you are bored or trying to stay awake during a boring situation, then it is likely that this habit has just stayed with you since childhood. In such a case, unless you are experiencing hair damage or your hair is falling out, there is no need to be concerned about this habit.

However, if you find that your hair twirling started in childhood or adolescence and you continued to twirl your hair when you are anxious, then it could be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. If you twirl your hair when you are coping with anxious and intrusive thoughts or when you feel nervous, it is likely that this habit is a symptom of an underlying anxiety disorder.(13)

At the same time, hair twirling can also be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). (14) If you are experiencing other symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is possible that your habit of hair twirling is part of your condition. Some of the other symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder to watch out for include:

  • Repetitive acts that temporarily help alleviate stress and anxiety.
  • Having upsetting thoughts or impulses that occur repeatedly.
  • Symptoms that tend to last for over an hour each day and start to interfere with your daily life.

However, hair twirling as a standalone symptom is not enough to suggest that you have obsessive-compulsive disorder.(15,16)

How To Stop The Habit Of Hair Twirling?

If you find that hair twirling is impacting your child’s health, there are several ways you can stop or interrupt this habit. These include:

  • Change your child’s hairstyle: If you find that your child’s hair has been damaged due to hair twirling, you should try giving them a haircut. Keeping shorter hair can help as, without hair to twirl, your child may find it rough to self-soothe and calm themselves for a couple of days, but the habit tends to disappear by the time the hair grows back.
  • Wearing mittens at bedtime: You can try putting mittens on your child at bedtime. This has been found to help toddlers stop twirling their hair, especially if they have a habit of hair twirling to self-soothe themselves before bedtime.
  • Fidget devices: There are several types of fidget devices available these days that are made to provide the distraction and relief that a fidgety child looks for. This will not cause any damage to their hair. There are also some devices that are made out of artificial hair that your child can twirl that allows them to calm down before bedtime.(17,18)

The treatment for stopping hair twirling also depends on the reason why you have this habit, to begin with. If you are an adult, here are some things you can consider to stop twirling your hair:

  • Brush your hair instead of twirling.
  • Keep your hands busy by doing something constructive. Crocheting or knitting are excellent ideas.
  • Take good care of your hair so as to reduce the desire to pull at it.
  • Learn some alternative techniques to stress relief, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or Tai-Chi.
  • Speak with a psychologist if you think approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you stop twirling.
  • Set small goals and reward yourself for meeting them. For example, don’t twirl your hair for three hours at a time and if you are successful in meeting that goal, reward yourself.
  • Consider wearing a baseball cap, hoodie, or beanie to prevent hair twirling in your sleep.
  • If you are twirling your hair to calm your anxiety, consider taking anti-anxiety medications.
  • Reduce your intake of sugar and caffeine.

Conclusion

Children and adults can twirl their hair for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is a childhood habit that simply does not go away as you get older. Other times, hair twirling can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you start to notice that hair twirling is beginning to have a negative impact on your or your child’s health, you should consult a doctor. If you or your child are experiencing hair damage or hair loss due to this habit, you should not delay seeking help. Your family physician may refer you to a mental health professional. Your doctor will offer you various treatment options if the hair twirling starts affecting your or your child’s day-to-day life.

References:

  1. Deaver, C.M., Miltenberger, R.G. and Stricker, J.M., 2001. Functional analysis and treatment of hair twirling in a young child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34(4), pp.535-538.
  2. Dubose, J.A. and Spirrison, C.L., 2006. Hair Pulling in a Diverse College Sample. North American Journal of Psychology, 8(3).
  3. McCarley, N.G., Spirrison, C.L. and Ceminsky, J.L., 2002. Hair pulling behavior reported by African American and non-African American college students. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 24(3), pp.139-144.
  4. Santhanam, R., Fairley, M. and Rogers, M., 2008. Is it trichotillomania? Hair pulling in childhood: A developmental perspective. Clinical child psychology and psychiatry, 13(3), pp.409-418.
  5. Byrd, M.R., Richards, D.F., Hove, G. and Friman, P.C., 2002. Treatment of early onset hair pulling as a simple habit. Behavior modification, 26(3), pp.400-411.
  6. Hautmann, G., Hercogova, J. and Lotti, T., 2002. Trichotillomania. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 46(6), pp.807-826.
  7. Sah, D.E., Koo, J. and Price, V.H., 2008. Trichotillomania. Dermatologic therapy, 21(1), pp.13-21.
  8. Mansueto, C.S., Stemberger, R.M.T., Thomas, A.M. and Golomb, R.G., 1997. Trichotillomania: A comprehensive behavioral model. Clinical Psychology Review, 17(5), pp.567-577.
  9. Meltzer, D., Bremner, J., Hoxter, S., Weddell, D. and Wittenberg, I., 2018. Explorations in autism: A psychoanalytical study. Harris Meltzer Trust.
  10. Bodfish, J.W., Symons, F.J., Parker, D.E. and Lewis, M.H., 2000. Varieties of repetitive behavior in autism: Comparisons to mental retardation. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 30(3), pp.237-243.
  11. Lam, K.S., Bodfish, J.W. and Piven, J., 2008. Evidence for three subtypes of repetitive behavior in autism that differ in familiality and association with other symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(11), pp.1193-1200.
  12. Roberts, S., O’Connor, K., Aardema, F. and Bélanger, C., 2015. The impact of emotions on body-Focused repetitive behaviors: Evidence from a non-treatment-seeking sample. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 46, pp.189-197.
  13. Borkovec, T.D. and Newman, M.G., 1998. Worry and generalized anxiety disorder. Comprehensive clinical psychology, 6, pp.439-459.
  14. Schlosser, S., Black, D.W., Blum, N. and Goldstein, R.B., 1994. The demography, phenomenology, and family history of 22 persons with compulsive hair pulling. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 6(3), pp.147-152.
  15. Leckman, J.F., Grice, D.E., Boardman, J., Zhang, H., Vitale, A., Bondi, C., Alsobrook, J., Peterson, B.S., Cohen, D.J., Rasmussen, S.A. and Goodman, W.K., 1997. Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(7), pp.911-917.
  16. Tolin, D.F., Brady, R.E. and Hannan, S., 2008. Obsessional beliefs and symptoms of obsessive–compulsive disorder in a clinical sample. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 30(1), pp.31-42.
  17. Schecter, R.A., Shah, J., Fruitman, K. and Milanaik, R.L., 2017. Fidget spinners: Purported benefits, adverse effects and accepted alternatives. Current opinion in pediatrics, 29(5), pp.616-618.
  18. Cohen, E.J., Bravi, R. and Minciacchi, D., 2018. The effect of fidget spinners on fine motor control. Scientific reports, 8(1), pp.1-9.

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