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Toddlers Who Pull Hair

Aug26

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesHi Amy,

My otherwise sweet-natured 16-month-old daughter is a terror when it comes to hair pulling and I am at my wits’end with it. I have long hair and she delights in grabbing it with both hands and yanking hard. It’s agony! And she won’t let go either – she tangles her fingers in there and holds on, and sometimes it takes two people to disentangle her. It’s got to the stage where I have to have my hair tied back whenever I’m around her, and even then she will sometimes deliberately reach around over my shoulder to yank on my pony tail. I always try to respond calmly, telling her no and not giving her the satisfaction of a dramatic response, but no matter what I do she just laughs delightedly and clearly thinks it’s a game. And sometimes, I admit, it hurts so much I DO yell because I can’t help it. I don’t yell AT her (much as I sometimes want to!) but just a yell of pain, and that apparently just makes it funnier. Honestly the combination of the pain and then my daughter laughing at having caused it makes me just want to cry sometimes, and I would really like to find a way to make her stop.

Do you have any tips for dealing with this? My instincts are that she’s too little to understand a time-out, but is there any other form of appropriate punishment that might get through to her? I am really tired of flinching every time she comes over to me for a cuddle because I’m afraid it’s just a cover for her to get at my hair (and usually that’s exactly what it is!) and I would maybe one day like to be able to wear my hair down around her without fear!

Thanks!

Oh, maaaaan…my scalp was flinching in sympathetic agony while reading your email, because yeah. The hair-pulling stage! It’s a fun one, all right.

For starters, take comfort in the fact that your daughter mostly seems to only being pulling YOUR hair, with the “YAY THIS GAME IS FUN” impulse, rather than, say, yanking on their playmate’s or sibling’s hair over each and every little sharing/”stop bugging me” confrontation. It hurts when it’s your hair, but at least it’s sliiiightly less mortifying than realizing your otherwise-sweet-natured child is angrily and deliberately making other kids howl in pain over one of two dozen interchangeable blue cars.

(GIVES EZRA THE STINK EYE. THANKS FOR ALL THAT, KID.)

And more good news: So totally a phase. She’ll outgrow it, really and truly, once her social skills and vocabulary mature and she’s a tad more capable of empathy and/or impulse control. I’d say…give it two more months, or until her first big burst of language. It’s a pain, yes, but don’t worry: It’s a relatively normal, harmless phase while she delights in cause-and-effect, and not indicative of future cruelty or playground fist fights.

In the meantime:

Keep your hair back. I wore mine up in a claw clip, French twist style (so no ponytail to yank), and would often add extra protection to the front of my head with a wide fabric headband. Removing the temptation was usually the most sure-fire solution, even if it wasn’t the most fashionable.

Give her something else to pull on. Search around on Amazon or Etsy for “nursing necklaces” or “teething jewelry.” These are cute, baby-proof necklaces for moms, designed for a nursing/teething baby to tug and chew and yank on to her heart’s content. I used one like this during the teething phase and brought it back into play when Ezra went through the I JUST WANT TO GRAB YOUR HAIR/FACE/NECK SKIN AND SQUEEEEEEEEZE phase. Something like this might also be attractive to a yanky, grabby toddler.

Be calm and consistent. Don’t take it personally. She really doesn’t understand that she’s hurting you. She doesn’t understand that laughing hurts your feelings. She just really, really digs the reaction she gets when you do yelp or flinch or bite your lip and scrunch up your eyes while you try NOT to yelp or flinch, and dagnabbit, she’s gonna try and try to make you do that again. Punishments like timeouts (or yanking her hair in return to “show her how it feels”) are just not developmentally appropriate OR likely to be all that effective. “No pulling hair. Pulling hair hurts.” Take her hand, stroke gently over your hair to model.  Over and over and over again. The only way through it is through.

Try some preferred hair-related play. In addition to showing her the correct way to handle someone else’s hair right after a pulling incident, you might (if you’re brave enough) want to hand her a hairbrush or comb and let her start playing with Mama’s hair. If you bathe or shower together, let her have a go at lathering the shampoo on your head. If it disintegrates into pulling, the game/privilege is immediately over…so if it turns out to be something she enjoys doing, she MIGHT catch on that hey, I need NOT DO THAT in order to keep playing.

Alternatively, if you aren’t ready to offer up your own scalp as a guinea big, get her a long-haired doll or stuffed animal (like a lion with a mane) and a toy comb or brush. Show her the right way to treat its hair, and if she pulls it — well, no real biggie, but take the opportunity to talk about the toy’s feelings. “Dolly is sad! That hurts! She doesn’t want to play anymore. Oh, dear.”

Sign language. Personally, I found it REALLY effective to give my toddlers a way to express words and concepts that they were still months away from using in speech, like “hurt” and “sorry.” If you can teach your daughter to use the sign for hurt (it’s just tapping the tips of your index fingers together) when SHE is hurt or has a boo-boo, it might help connect the dots just a bit sooner for her when she sees YOU use it after a hair-pulling incident.

Again: PHASE. She’ll get past it, I promise. You will wear your hair down again! Some of these suggestions may go completely over her head, and you’ll just need to wait it out, as calmly as possible. But hey, sometimes you just need to feel like you’re doing SOMETHING akin to actual parenting as opposed to…wild, lawless cat-herding, right?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “Toddlers Who Pull Hair”

  1. Zinna Aug 26 at 11:09 am Reply Reply

    I’d also suggest walking away from her. Since she clearly is getting a reaction (negative in this case) and she doesn’t understand that it’s hurting you, by not giving her any attention for her behavior, she will hopefully realize that pulling hair = mom walking away.

    Calmly disentangle your hair, say NO gently but firmly, and walk away from her. She’s going to start associating the pulling of the hair means no mommy.

  2. Olivia Aug 26 at 11:17 am Reply Reply

    My daughter was younger during her hair pulling stage and it was her dad’s hair she loved to grab. He had dreads she just loved to yank on. She was a bit young for sign language so we just went with putting her on the floor with no attention over and over and over…She did eventually stop.

    When she was about your daughter’s age she started doing things like smacking and scratching. That’s when I taught her the sign for “hurt”. I emphasized the sign every time she got hurt so she would understand what hurt means. She’s almost 2.5 now and whenever she gets too rambunctious, I can usually just tell her, “No, that hurts” or “You will get hurt doing that” and she’ll stop. 

  3. Cristin Aug 26 at 1:08 pm Reply Reply

    I’ll second Zinna’s answer. While I worked in a toddler room in a daycare (hair pulling, biting central!) this method worked the best. We would say “We don’t pull hair-that HURTS” and walk away. If you’re holding her, put her down. We also practiced “Nice touches” on doll’s hair. But Amalah’s right; it’s just a phase.

  4. Brigid Keely Aug 26 at 2:11 pm Reply Reply

    We went through the hair pulling thing, and my husband and I also wear glasses so there was a lot of glasses grabbing.

    Firm “no”s and redirection (giving him something else to hold on to) helped until he passed that phase. I have long hair, and I actually cut it pretty short (note: I was also shedding a LOT) but prior to that I’d pull it back into a braid or a bun so he couldn’t grab onto it. I stopped wearing earrings and necklaces for a while, now they are no problem.

    We also practiced nice touch/soft touch/”mazzy” and use that as a redirection.

    Our problem now that he’s 2 1/2 is that he tries to be helpful when we’re waking up in the morning, and he brings us our glasses. Which is not helpful because at best he gets fingerprints on the lenses and at worst he might bend or break them. So we’re working with him on that and also trying to keep them out of his reach.

  5. A Aug 26 at 2:57 pm Reply Reply

    I also am with Zinna. Putting a child down and walking away is a pretty clear signal for them. I used it when my daughters would bite while nursing (7 and 9 months respectivelly) and when my 1 year old son started pinching me. My son took a while to “get it” but with my daughters it only took a few times.

  6. Kimm Aug 26 at 2:58 pm Reply Reply

    I just started dealing with this with my 5 month old, glasses grabbing and serious hair pulling ouch ouch ouch. For 2 months my hair has been falling out, and baby didn’t even have to pull hard for a handful to come out. I yell in a mean voice and walk away for a minute. Hoping it will help before he snatches me bald.

  7. Olivia Aug 26 at 3:08 pm Reply Reply

    Kimm, you do that with a 5 month old? I…find that to be quite a different situation than a toddler pulling hair for laughs. A 5 month old is just learning how to grasp things and will do so with anything within reach. A baby that young is not going to understand the connection between grabbing your hair and you yelling and walking away. 

  8. Olivia Aug 26 at 3:10 pm Reply Reply

    I want to add, removing baby’s hands and trying to show him/her “gentle” hands is a good thing to do with a young baby, but don’t expect it to kick in until the baby is much older.

  9. HereWeGoAJen Aug 26 at 5:02 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter loves attention and will settle for the negative kind if that is what she can get. She went through a hair pulling phase and I spent about three weeks with my hair pulled back into a bun every single day. After that, she had kind of forgotten about it and didn’t do it again.

    Also, she had a phase where she bit me on the shoulder. It got to the point where I would force myself to totally ignore it (which is not easy when a baby is biting you on the shoulder) and she stopped doing it. Avoiding giving her any kind of attention for the behavior was what eventually stopped her.

  10. Kim Aug 26 at 7:00 pm Reply Reply

    No experience w/the toddler hair pulling…. but that was some great advice. To the other commenter – Kimm – I suggest chillaxing. Your 5 month old is… 5 months old for criminy’s sake!!! He doesn’t pull to be mean or whatever – he’s a baby who is discovering things and still has a forceful clenched fist. RELAX!

  11. kimtoo Aug 27 at 12:57 pm Reply Reply

    Well, a 5mo can be taught not to bite while nursing, so I think they can learn not to pull, too, if it’s important enough to the mother, so maybe she’s not the only one who should relax.. Might try redirection rather than mean voice, though. Mine has been pulling hair her whole life,mostly me but her sister’s as well. We did sad faces and voices when she was little, and signed when she got bigger. We add the the sad sign (trace a tear down your face) and we have her “check in” with her sister afterwards (which mostly involves a pat on the arm.) There’s something about the gentle touch that resonates with her, and she doesn’t pull for fun anymore. She still plays with my hair as a soother, though. Taggies just didn’t cut it.

  12. Heidi Aug 29 at 8:49 am Reply Reply

    With both my sons, I’ve had quite a bit of luck using books to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce negative ones. (Reinforcement? Or is it that they don’t believe me but accept the authority of the written word?) The younger one especially went through a big hair-pulling and hitting thing to get attention ’round about fifteen to eighteen months. We read “Hands Are Not for Hitting” over and over, and we would then repeat sentences in it when he would display various behaviors that the book told us hands are not for. We could also adapt the same sentence structure for other behaviors not addressed in the book (Hands are not for grabbing, hands are for helping–etc.). He’s almost 3 now, and we still use these sentences and terminology whenever he forgets his big boy manners and hits/throws/pushes. 

  13. a Aug 30 at 5:05 pm Reply Reply

    I WISH I could put my son down and walk away when he does this. Remember the part in the question that mentions needing TWO PEOPLE to disentangle the child’s hands? Walking away isn’t really an option in that case. Signing “ouch”? Similarly difficult, when you need to use your hands to keep the child from actually ripping the hair out of your scalp. Saying “ouch”? Hasn’t been very helpful to us, either. I got my hair cut short; long-in-a-bun probably would have been better– short enough that he can’t get his hands into it when I’m bending over changing his diaper would be *really* short.

    My son started this about six months ago; he’s 25 months old now. It peaked a couple of months ago and it’s been declining gradually. There was biting, too, also on the decline.

    I’m not proud of this, but I tried the yelling-in-a-mean-voice thing, when the calm “Ow, that hurts Mommy!” response didn’t work. FYI, the calm response wasn’t completely effective, but the mean-voice one seemed to just make him do it more.

  14. Molly Jul 29 at 6:56 pm Reply Reply

    My 17 month old son is tackling girls in his gymnastics class while trying to grab their hair and/or bows. I try saying NO and redirecting him. But, then he runs over to the next girl. Ugh!

    Any suggestions on how to handle this?

  15. newbie mom Oct 11 at 9:07 am Reply Reply

    My baby was a terrible hairpuller. Since I have hair down to my waist, this was a problem! At 20 months she is still fascinated with hair but no longer makes me cry in pain.

    I basically keep my hair in a braid 24/7. She is allowed to play with the end of my braid, but no other part. (If she starts to go for my scalp, I tell her no, and put my braid in her hand).

    I found that having hair that she was allowed to play with (she doesn’t have all that much of her own) made a HUGE difference. She still would go after other people’s hair, but less often, and she listened more when I tell that other people’s hair is off limits.

    Good luck.

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