Compulsive Habits and Our Little Girl

This little girl of ours causes me such worry at times.

Little girl with compulsive habits - how do we help her?

My little girl has had a range of compulsive habits

Over the last few years she’s had a range of compulsive habits – it started with twirling massive knots in her hair whilst sucking her thumb when she was  two – this escalated into pulling the knots out and causing significant thinning on one side of her head, picking a scab on the end of her nose preventing it from healing for six months (this has happened on two separate occasions), sucking on her coat collar until it makes her face sore and now we’re back with pulling her hair out.

We’ve tried everything we can think of to break the habits

We have tried everything – distracting her, being cross with her, ignoring it, reward charts, covering her hands with welly socks to her arm pits or eczema sleeves (or even both!) at night to stop her from being able to get to her hair / nose / whatever else she can’t leave alone. But every time we think we’ve cracked it and broken the habit, she replaces it with something else.

On their own, each of the habits I suppose could be seen as a fairly normal childlike habit that you’d expect her to grow out of but the fact that we break a habit only to then find her reverting back to the same one months later concerns me. 

Little girl wearing bright orange hat and smiling broadly

My little girl is pulling her hair out

Her hair had all but grown back, I was planning on cutting it into a bob this month to even it all out but last night I notice that, out of nowhere, she has created herself a significant thin (borderline bald) patch again. I worry that her hair won’t recover, that this will be a lifelong issue for her, or that if I can actually manage to stop her pulling her hair out, she’ll just start doing something else.  I worry that it will be more serious as she gets older.

I don’t think it’s an anxiety thing, so much as comfort.  She’s such a happy little thing – people are always telling me she’s one of the happiest little girls they’ve ever met.  The habits often seemed to be linked to sucking her thumb – she would twirl her hair whilst sucking her thumb, pick the scab on her nose whilst sucking her thumb – the coat thing I suppose also relates to finding comfort from sucking.  

Dave was fairly determined that we needed to stop her sucking her thumb to break the other habits whereas I felt that stopping everything at once was too stressful for her.  As it is, we have reached a point where she wears her sleeves for bed which means she can’t get to her thumb anyway, but she still sucks it during the day. 

We think the hair pulling is happening in bed in the mornings when she has taken her sleeves off so I’ve asked her to keep them on until we get up with her.  I’ve watched her closely today and have seen her hand rise to her hair once or twice but she has stopped herself, I’ve praised her and given her her favourite cuddly toy to hold to try and keep her hand busy. 

How to help child with compulsive habits

It’s time to seek help

I’m sure you can tell that I’m worried about her.  Dave and I have decided the time has come to seek some advice on this now and are planning on taking her to the GP next week – we’re going to go together so that one of us can wait outside with Amy whilst the other speaks to the Doctor before we take Amy in for them to see her.

Essentially the purpose of this post is that I want to record where things are up to for her, so I can see how things improve (or deteriorate) over the coming months.  And, to ask if you have any experiences or advice to share that can help us to help Amy break these habits. 



  1. December 7, 2018 / 10:15 pm

    My daughter does this too! She is 4 now and has pulled her hair out since she was 2. She goes through phases where it’s really bad then her hair grows back – the past few weeks it’s been really bad again with noticable bald patches. As with your daughter it’s linked with thumb sucking. She wears sleeves with mitts at night but she takes them off in the morning. We’ve tried using the horrible tasting stuff which is supposed to stop nail biting but after a few minutes she’s sucking her thumb again. Now she’s at school I can’t be there to remind her not to do it. Her hair is a mess all the time and I don’t know what to do. Bribery, reward charts, promises of buying her nice hair clips, being able to put plaits in her hair, nothing seems to work!

    • Colette
      December 7, 2018 / 10:30 pm

      Yes we tried the nail biting stuff to when we were trying to stop her scratching her nose, I think it helped a bit but not much. The sleeves and mitts seem to be the best solution if only I could get her to keep them on. I dread going in to check on her for fear of finding knots that she’s pulled out (and often hidden). I’ve spoken to school and asked them to keep an eye on it, they’re going to distract her if they see her doing it and make a note of it for me but I really think it’s mostly just happening in bed.
      We used to reward her for keeping her sleeves on – one sticker if they were still on when I checked on her at bedtime, and another if they were still on when I got up in the morning – that worked for a while.

  2. December 7, 2018 / 10:16 pm

    Ooh she is a swine. It will make it permanently thin if she keeps pulling it right out at the root. It’s such an annoyance. We had issues with the collar sucking with one of ours and they did it for years even though we constantly stopped them. I have no useful advice unfortunately, other than find something she hates the taste of to put into her hair and see if it deters her. I imagine you’ve tried that though, you aren’t daft. Fingers crossed you find a solution x

    • Colette
      December 7, 2018 / 10:33 pm

      She doesn’t suck her hair so that’s not a problem thankfully.
      This is it – I really do worry about the permanent damage she could cause. It has taken so long for her hair to go back to a stage where I could think about bobbing it for her. I just don’t know what to do with her.

  3. December 8, 2018 / 7:00 am

    One of mine has sensory processing disorder, it’s a huge spectrum of quite small seeming sensory things – but overall it’s simply that some children simply need to look for greater (or less) sensory input in order to feel calm and regulated. Not saying it’s this, but our experience finding other ways to get sensory input with a physiotherapist has really helped stop things like jumper and finger chewing. Swinging on a pull up bar, rolling on a Swiss ball, being rolled up in a blanket and squished – our house is like soft play centre but it all seems to help. Rugby and ball throwing games really helped too.

    • Colette
      December 8, 2018 / 7:33 am

      Thanks Penny – that’s really helpful. We’ve tried replacing the habits with cuddly toys / dolls with long hair / soft blankets – and during the day she’s really good, it seems to kick in when she’s tired or just waking up when we’re not there to help distract her. d

  4. December 17, 2018 / 10:03 pm

    It’s not exactly the same but my stepson had a pretty severe tic which manifested it many many ways that worried me and his dad no end.

    When we eventually got him seen he was referred to a child psychologist and he was given techniques to suppress. He had them for so long they will probably never fully go away but he is unrecognisable now. We definitely feel that had he gone earlier he would not have developed them so severely so going to the GP and hopefully being referred to he right people is definitely the best step.

    Good luck as I know how awful/scary and downright frustrating it is xx

  5. March 12, 2019 / 7:46 pm

    Oh bless her. I hope the GP can help, I know what a battles these things have been for you over the last few years x

  6. March 12, 2019 / 9:57 pm

    Hoping your GP can give you some good support for this. Our eldest has sucked her thumb for what feels like forever and it’s been almost impossible for her to give up. When the need is great, it’s difficult to break. But hopefully you can find something else to replace and comfort, unless she gets to a point where she feels the need to stop herself first… hugs to you, difficult to watch as a parent x

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