Monday, January 25, 2010

Letting Go

Something that became painfully clear to me a long time ago is that parenting is all about letting go. From the moment your children are born, it's a slow but steady progression of letting go. Sometimes it's a physical letting go, sometimes an emotional letting go, and sometimes it's letting go of control. No matter what, letting go is really hard.

I'm dealing with a letting-go issue with Annabelle right now. I've written a number of times before about her penchant for pulling her hair out. While she's never been formally diagnosed with trichotillomania, I've pretty much come to assume that that's the label most appropriately attached to her habit. It started with hair-twirling when she was less than a year old and evolved into hair-pulling over time. It usually coincides with finger sucking; she sucks the two middle fingers of one hand while twirling and pulling out her hair in a specific spot on her scalp with the index finger on her other hand.

For more than a year now I've been determined to break her of this habit, because ultimately, it breaks my heart to see the destruction she wreaks on that beautiful head of golden curls. Also, I feel like I've failed her in some monumental way: what sort of issues does she carry around inside, not knowing any way to manage them except by pulling her own hair out? Whether this guilt is actually warranted or not, I really don't know. I've tried and tried to figure it out. Does she have anxiety? I wouldn't characterize her as an especially anxious child, but maybe I'm just not recognizing it? Is she unhappy? For the most part, she's always been very fun-loving and affectionate and a little clown. Is it chemical? Does she need to be on medication? Does she have ADD/ADHD? Both her preschool teacher and her kindergarten teacher have assured me that they don't have any reason to think she has any kind of attention deficit issue, and that she's well-behaved and focused at school. Is it a manifestation of Middle Child Syndrome and feeling lost in the shuffle of a lot of siblings? (There's that guilt again . . .)

I haven't come up with any answers. What I have done is try my damnedest to control her hair-pulling habit, and along with that, her finger-sucking habit, since the two go hand-in-hand (and they both drive me crazy). I have visions of her growing up into an adult with these same compulsions still driving her, and maybe worse ones as well. I've been determined to force her to Stop. Pulling. Her. Hair. Out. I've done this by taping up her sucking and pulling fingers with first-aid tape or bandaids. At all times, day and night. Because the minute her fingers are free, there she goes, twirling/pulling and sucking. Then I get on her case. I demand that she Stop It Right Now. I yell at her for it. Because it makes me feel angry and helpless.

It's become such a point of contention between us, and I truly hate what it's doing to our relationship. She's five. We shouldn't have any points of contention this big for at least another six or seven years!

The truth is, the taping works, sort of. It's a band-aid solution, though (so to speak). As long as her fingers are taped up, she doesn't pull. But getting the tape on is always a battle because she hates it, and she takes it off on the sly much of the time anyway. And I've begun to realize that having tape on her fingers stigmatizes her at school. I've seen other kids ask her why she has tape or band-aids on her fingers and I've seen her look down and quietly say, "I don't want to talk about that." Rip my heart out.

So I decided a few weeks ago to stop making her wear tape on her fingers at school. She insists that she doesn't pull or suck at school anyway, and I tend to believe her. She's plenty busy at school; it's at home that she has down time and it's when she's idle that her fingers go into her mouth and her hair.

However, I've still been trying to control her behavior by nagging her about it, by demanding that she STOP IT! when I catch her doing it.

Ugh. It's just miserable. And after about six months of her hair growing out, I had to cut it again to even it all out because of the pulling.

It's not that she doesn't look adorable with short hair (she does!), and it's not that I have anything against short hair on girls (I don't!). It's the reason we have to keep it short that kills me.

Lucky for me, though, I have a friend, Megan, who is in a very similar boat. She has a little girl who pulls too (and she has another little girl who has Ds who may be Finn's future wife, or at least girlfriend). Imagine my shock (and relief!) when I discovered that Annabelle is not the only child on the planet with this strange and frustrating habit. So Megan and I commiserate. Recently she sent me this article, which makes a lot of sense to me, or at least is worth a shot.

So we're trying a new tactic here. When Michael or I see Annabelle sucking her fingers and/or twirling/pulling her hair, we calmly take her to the place we have designated to be her Pulling/Sucking Place (a chair in the playroom), we sit her down and encourage her to suck and pull to her heart's content for the next 10 minutes. She's not allowed to pull or suck anywhere else but in that special spot, but once there, she's encouraged to pull and suck as much as possible. Outside of that, we don't talk about it - we don't talk about her hair or her pulling or her sucking.

It's tricky. It was tricky choosing a place to put her, first of all. The article suggested a bathroom, but that's really not practical in our house because with as many people who live here, the bathroom is likely to be occupied at any given time. After trying out a couple different places in the house, we settled on the chair in the playroom as the most practical. Another tricky aspect is the fact that when we take her to that spot, she tends to react as if she's being put in a time-out (i.e., punished), which is not the message I want her to be getting. It's more like, "Okay, you want/need to do this, here's a private place for you to do it to your heart's content." Tricky, also, is not talking about her hair or her habits outside of taking her to her special place - in other words, not drawing attention, not giving it that power - even when she twists a corkscrew into the front of her hair making herself resemble a unicorn (I'm not kidding).

Of course this is all really just a tactic to hopefully, eventually, get her to stop. But I have to accept that she may not stop. And that's the trickiest part of all: trying to let go of this. To let her own this, to give the control back to her. I can't make her stop, no matter how hard I try. I can only help her if she wants me to help her, and I will be here to help her, but ultimately, it's up to her.


diane rene said...

your post this morning made me cry. I have a six year old who wants nothing more than to have long beautiful hair like her sisters, but she sucks her thumb and twists her hair so that one side of her head has hair that is damaged, thin and so much shorter that the other. this has happened since birth. as an infant, I had to change her sheets daily because we would wake every morning to a cradle full of little hairs. it broke my heart then, and it still does.

like your daughter, this only seems to happen when we have down time - car rides, TV time, transitional periods, and of course, bedtime.

today I try to limit her to the sucking and pulling only at night. it relaxes her and she has vocalized that it makes her feel better. how do I take that away from her? her dentist thinks if we can stop the thumb sucking, we can stop the pulling, but being a thumb sucker myself (from birth to age 14), I have my own anxieties about taking that away as well. it's not so much stress or ADD/ADHD, it's just a way of safely self medicating ... like the person who needs TV to fall asleep, or the person who needs white noise to filter out the mad dash of thoughts running through their heads before bed. for me, sucking my thumb as a child was a way to calm myself, focus my thoughts, and relax enough to sleep (oddly enough, since I stopped sucking my thumb at night, I have suffered from insomnia - go figure).
I share your pain and feel lost as where to go from here - IF there is anywhere to go. thanks for the link, I am off to read it now :) and good luck!

heather said...

I plan on reading the article too when we get out of this blasted hospital, but I related to this post and also like Diane's comment because we are trying to deal with Morgan and her thumb sucking. It's good to hear some of the positives it gives the child. I have been taping MOrgan's thumbs and then she just decided to start sucking her fingers. I'm not about to tape up all of her fingers and impede her writing skills. It's so hard as a parent because we know what is best for our child in the long run but they ultimately have all of the control. One day we'll look back on these self-soothing habits and laugh (at least we better!) and wonder why we worried so much about them.

Amy said...

We've BTDT with our eldest, who is now 12. It started when she was around 18months old. She would pull her hair. No twirling, just pulling. And then she'd take it a step further and eat it. IT was so gross. We were very concerned and our doctor did a battery of blood work to rule out things. Everything came back clear. We ended up at a children's hospital having her evaluated by a pediatric psychiatrist. She was diagnosed with a form of OCD. He believed it was caused by anxiety. We were encouraged to find a "lovey" for her. We worked hard to push this lovey on her. She ended up having a blanket for quite a few years longer than we would have liked, but it really did end up helping. It wasn't something that stopped overnight, but I do believe the blanket helped. She did finally stop. And the bald spot grew in. But I won't lie, it is something that is still in the back of our minds as she grows. We're hyper sensitive to any indication that she may fall back into hair pulling. We worry as she starts dealing with more as she grows older. Only time will tell, but we hope we've seen the last of it.

Good Luck. I know how worrisome it is.