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Published: Monday, July 21, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Living with Children: Big changes may cause toddler’s hair pulling

Q: Since our daughter, now 2 years old, was born we have lived with my parents. Being the first and only grandchild, she has been the center of attention. Several months ago, our son was born, and we moved into our own home. Almost immediately, our daughter began pulling her hair out, sometimes in handfuls. Doctors have said she does it for attention and we should just ignore it. Thatís what weíve done but it has not stopped. Itís now gotten so bad that Iíve cut her hair because the side she pulls has gotten so short. I just donít know what to do. Any advice would be appreciated.
A: The idea that a toddler pulls her hair out by the handfuls as a means of seeking attention is unverifiable. Itís the sort of thing that professionals say when they have no explanation but canít admit it to themselves, much less anyone else. Under those circumstances, ďsheís doing it (whatever it might be) for attentionĒ becomes a default explanation. As such, itís meaningless and decidedly unhelpful. Itís unhelpful because it implies that something is wrong in the childís life; that her parents are failing to meet some critical psychological need. The end result is a lot of parental guilt and anxiety, neither of which are conducive to solving problems involving child behavior of any sort.
Then we come to ďjust ignore it.Ē Thatís a default recommendation ó again, the sort of thing professionals advise when theyíre at a loss for advice. The fact is that misbehavior of any sort is very difficult to ignore. Itís harder still to ignore a child who is causing herself harm. Then, when attempts to ignore donít work (as in your situation), the parents are likely to begin exaggerating the psychological significance of the problem. The end result is more guilt and more anxiety.
The simple explanation for your daughterís hair-pulling is ďchildren do odd things, and odd things are more likely when lots of change is taking place in a childís life.Ē In short order, you moved from one home to another and a second child was born. Thatís a lot of change. Maybe thereís a relationship between all that change and your daughterís hair-pulling. Maybe there isnít. Maybe sheíd be pulling her hair out if you still lived with your parents and she was still the only grandchild. Who knows? Furthermore, why does one need to know?
Iíve had a reasonable amount of success curing hair-pulling in older kids, but toddlers are a different ballgame. The problem is that like nail-biting, hair-pulling can quickly become a habit. So, the trick is to do whatever needs to be done to prevent the habit from developing or, if itís already developed (as in your daughterís case), reverse its course.
You said you donít know what to do, but youíve already done it: cut her hair. Cut it so short she has nothing to grab and yank. If people are so bold as to ask why her hairís so short, tell them out of her earshot. You are probably going to have to keep it short for at least a year, until she begins developing interests that keep her hands busy in more constructive ways. Until then, buy her some cute hats.
Story tags » Parenting

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