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
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.
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