Toddler pulls playmates' hair

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  March 8, 2011 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Hi Barbara,

I have an adorable but spirited 16-month-old boy. Since he was about 9 months old, he would sometimes pull my hair or bite me. When this happened, I would say "ouch" and tell him to stop. Now he has begun pulling other children's hair A LOT. Last week we were at a play group, and he must have grabbed about every child's hair at least once. I've started to give him time-outs, but he doesn't seem to get it and smiles after he accomplishes his mischievous act. I'd appreciate any advice you might have for me.

From: Kristine, Brooklyn, NY

Hi Kristine,

Time out doesn't work with children this young (and sometimes doesn't work at all with some children). Here are some alternatives:

Try to anticipate when it will happen. He probably pulls another child's hair for one of three reasons: He wants what the child has; he wants that child's attention, often to stop the action; or he wants an adult's attention and he knows this gets a reaction. If you can see it coming, intervene and give him the words he needs: "You want to play with the truck that Justin has. Let's ask Justin if you can have a turn." If you actually see his little arm moving into position to pull and it's logistically possible, gently grab his arm and tell him, "No! We don't pull hair." And then again, try to identify and label what he's feeling.

When he succeeds in pulling someone's hair, immediately pick him up and remove him from the activity. Say, "No hair pulling!" And then: "You can't play if you pull hair." Removing him from the action is powerful. He'll be unhappy. Try to engage him in something else for a few minutes (seconds?) and then tell him, "Can you play with Justin without pulling hair? Let's try." If it happens again, remove him again.

Alternatively, if it is your hair he pulls, get up and walk away from him, or turn your back on him. Tell him, "I can't play when you pull my hair. Tell me when you are ready to try to play again." If he does it again, repeat the same response as many times as necessary. Stay calm, matter-of-fact, and firm. He'll get he message. Toddlers learn by repetition. Sometimes it just takes a lot of it.

Here's what you never want to do: Pull his hair. I'm always hearing about parents who do that, thinking their kiddo will see how it hurts and stop. It doesn't compute that way. A child interprets it that if mom does it, it's OK for me, too.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

3 comments so far...
  1. Use the word "NO" and hold the hand to communicate that "no" means NO. Low firm tone of voice, no smile, calm body. Hold the hand until the kid stops trying to move his arm.

    That gets the message through without trauma. You really really need to set this firm limit to actions now or the child will be totally out of control at the age of 2. Once they can climb up, the hazard from things like hot pots and knives in the kitchen gets real in a big hurry.

    Talking up a storm to a nonverbal child really sends the message that they should repeat the action that led to so much attention.

    Posted by Irene March 9, 11 06:31 PM
  1. My mother had a great solution to the biting problem:

    I am 3 years older than my brother. One day, I bit him. My mother (gently) bit me back. The story goes that I looked at the spot, looked at my mother and promptly started to cry.

    Too much? Maybe. But she swears that I never bit anyone ever again.

    Posted by Amy March 10, 11 09:39 PM
  1. Hi Barbara,
    My 2 year old son is also going through the same phase. He is highly spirited child. he was about 8 months old, he would sometimes pull my hair s. When this happened, I would say "ouch" and tell him to stop. Now he has begun pulling other children's hair A LOT. Whenever we go to some party he grabbed about every child's hair at least once. I've started to give him time-outs, but he doesn't seem to get it and smiles after he accomplishes his mischievous act. I'd appreciate any advice you might have for me.

    Posted by rita April 4, 11 01:00 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. Use the word "NO" and hold the hand to communicate that "no" means NO. Low firm tone of voice, no smile, calm body. Hold the hand until the kid stops trying to move his arm.

    That gets the message through without trauma. You really really need to set this firm limit to actions now or the child will be totally out of control at the age of 2. Once they can climb up, the hazard from things like hot pots and knives in the kitchen gets real in a big hurry.

    Talking up a storm to a nonverbal child really sends the message that they should repeat the action that led to so much attention.

    Posted by Irene March 9, 11 06:31 PM
  1. My mother had a great solution to the biting problem:

    I am 3 years older than my brother. One day, I bit him. My mother (gently) bit me back. The story goes that I looked at the spot, looked at my mother and promptly started to cry.

    Too much? Maybe. But she swears that I never bit anyone ever again.

    Posted by Amy March 10, 11 09:39 PM
  1. Hi Barbara,
    My 2 year old son is also going through the same phase. He is highly spirited child. he was about 8 months old, he would sometimes pull my hair s. When this happened, I would say "ouch" and tell him to stop. Now he has begun pulling other children's hair A LOT. Whenever we go to some party he grabbed about every child's hair at least once. I've started to give him time-outs, but he doesn't seem to get it and smiles after he accomplishes his mischievous act. I'd appreciate any advice you might have for me.

    Posted by rita April 4, 11 01:00 AM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.
Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives