Although hair loss (alopecia) is a common disorder, the psychological impact of this can be very traumatic – especially if it is affecting a child. Depression, anxiety, shame, these are all very complex emotions which can accompany this disorder and, depending on the cause for the hair loss, can take months or years to overcome.
Society is not so forgiving
As a parent this can be devastating to watch happen to your child. We spoke to Corné Welman of CAP Kids South Africa, an international organisation which offers support to families of children with alopecia and helps build their self-esteem and confidence.
She said that in many cases there is no cure of alopecia, but that they aim to teach the children and their family that "hair does not make the person. We rather teach the child to embrace the fact of not having hair and that they should love themselves for who they are".
Psychological impact of hair loss
Unfortunately, however, the society we live in today is not so forgiving and since so much emphasis is placed on appearance, patchy hair loss can really take its toll emotionally on a young, impressionable person.
According to an article in the US National Library of Medicines National Institute of Health, “the experience of alopecia is psychologically damaging, causes intense emotional suffering, and leads to personal, social, and work related problems”.
Read: Bullied for my hair loss
The article draws a link between hair and identity, and even goes so far as to explain how some research has indicated that psychiatric disorders are more common in people with alopecia than in the general population, “suggesting that those with alopecia may be at higher risk for developing a serious depressive episode, anxiety disorder, social phobia, or paranoid disorder”.
Overall, most research shows that people with hair loss are far more prone to anxiety and depression and often suffer lower self-esteem, poorer quality of life, and poorer body image.
How to help your child
Given all of this, it is understandable that a parent might then feel shattered and overwhelmed for their child when they’re diagnosed with alopecia.
This is where organisations such as CAP Kids come in, offering support to both parents and children.
“We change the emphasis from growing hair to growing self-esteem. When a child has self-esteem it provides support and raises awareness. It will get more difficult the older the child gets, but our job as their parents is to know your child and make sure they know and understand the condition,” explained Welman.
She adds that one of their primary missions is to ensure that the children realise there is no shame in not having hair.
“This is the focus. This is what we make sure they understand. Make sure they understand their condition and give them the self-esteem boost to deal with comments. This is why we have support groups where all the kids come together and play and interact. This helps them to feel accepted and part of something important.”
Welman emphasises the best way to do this is to make sure you know your child. “You have to make sure you know exactly what is going on in his or her life to be able to help them.”
This is especially relevant when it comes to wigs – a common alternative for children with alopecia.
Welman says she believes this is a personal choice and it should be up to the child.
“Make sure that you listen to them, because they are dealing with this every day when they look at themselves in the mirror. You must just make sure that they love the person looking back at them no matter what,” she says.