Hair-Pulling and Toddlers

Why it happens
Yanking on hair, like kicking, biting, pinching, and hitting, is one of the ways toddlers express themselves and try to exert control over their immediate environment. Mark W. Roberts, professor of clinical psychology at Idaho State University, says there are three main reasons for this behavior. For young toddlers (12 to 18 months), the most likely explanation is the simplest one: They've discovered how to get a reaction, and they want to get it again. "It's like turning on a light switch, or hitting one of those toys where something pops up," Roberts says. "They pull, big brother squeals. This is fun." Another reason toddlers pull hair, Roberts says, is "to make bad things go away. Someone's crawling over them or taking their toys; they reach out and pull hair, and the bad thing stops." Finally, Roberts says, older toddlers (2 to 3) are developing the cognitive skills to reason things out, and may pull hair to try to control the direction of a situation. Roberts gives this example: Your toddler's older brother takes the last cookie, so she pulls his hair to make him squeal. "This has possibilities on two levels," Roberts says. "First, you might step in and make her big brother share the cookie. More important is the likelihood that big brother will think twice before taking the last cookie next time around."

What to do
Demonstrate futility. One of the keys to suppressing your toddler's inappropriate behavior is demonstrating convincingly that it doesn't work. If you ignore your toddler's hair pulling, it will "work" (in that whoever's hair is pulled will most likely do what your toddler wants), and it will get worse as your toddler learns over time that pulling hair gets her what she wants. If you try to read too much into the situation ("Hannah must have pulled Ellie's hair because Ellie was being mean. I'll distract Hannah by reading her a story ...") you may play right into her hands. Your child doesn't grasp the complexity of the social interaction; what she learns is that if she pulls hair, you take pity on her and she gets to sit in your lap. Instead, demonstrate the futility of pulling hair by "turning back the clock": If your toddler pulled her sister's hair to capture a toy, hand the toy back to her sister as you explain to your toddler, "We don't pull hair." For this to work, though, you've got to act fast: Toddlers are creatures of the moment.

Suppress the behavior. There's no good evidence that time-outs work for children younger than 2, so with a young toddler your best bet is probably a consistent admonishment: Gently grasp your toddler's hand and hold it while you say something like, "No, no; we don't pull hair, pulling hair hurts." If your child's 2 or more, let her know that pulling hair is not an acceptable response by immediately imposing what Roberts calls a "chair time-out." Stay with her but don't speak to her or engage her during her time-out, which should last about a minute. If your tot won't stay in her chair, try a regular time-out.

Talk it out. When the time-out's done, talk the situation through with your child. It's important to do this even if your toddler doesn't have many verbal skills yet because this shows her that talking (not hair pulling) is the way to solve problems. Ask your child, "What did you do that was wrong?" and follow that with "Why was it wrong?" Don't worry, Roberts says, if she comes back with "Because I had to go to time-out," or some variation thereof. "This is developmentally normal -- and you can follow it up by saying, 'Yes, you'll go to time-out if you pull hair but there's something else we need to think about. It's important not to pull hair because you might hurt someone.'"

While it's important to go through this process, don't expect too much. Toddlers have to learn the hard way -- by doing something over and over and learning that it always gets them into trouble. Your job is to be consistent and not get frustrated by having to repeat the same admonitions day in and day out.

As your toddler becomes more verbal, you can help model problem solving by talking through alternatives to hair pulling. Ask your child, "What could you do next time your brother bosses you around instead of pulling his hair?" Help your toddler practice saying no to her brother, or articulating something a bit more complex ("I want to play now") if she can.

Don't pull back. Don't decide to pull your toddler's hair to "teach her how it feels"; this old-fashioned strategy will backfire because it models the very behavior you're trying to stop. Your toddler pulls hair because she's trying to change something -- to stop her brother from taking her toys, for example. If you do the same thing -- pull her hair to stop her from pulling hair -- you're teaching her that hair pulling is the way to change someone's behavior. The idea that experiencing pain will teach her not to cause pain is similarly misguided, basically because toddlers don't yet have the empathetic skills to make such a connection.