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Baby Steps: Pinch Hitter

Q  We have a 15-month-old daughter who is our first and only child. She is pretty, intelligent, and as normal as a toddler her age can be, except that she likes to pull hair, scratch, and pinch. The situation gets more worrisome when she is around little kids; I have to constantly keep an eye on her. When we tell her to stop, she doesn't listen. Is there anything we can do?


A It is not at all unusual for toddlers to pinch and hit and exhibit other such attention-getting behaviors. The good news is that most of them stop during their preschool years, so you shouldn't worry that there's something wrong with your daughter.


There are many reasons our little angels behave in ways that we consider aggressive. First, they are just starting to acquire language, which means they have things they want to say, but cannot. This disconnect can be quite frustrating, and many children act out that frustration aggressively. Second, toddlers want to engage others, particularly peers, but lack the skills to do so. Pulling hair usually gets the other person's attention, so it seems like a successful strategy to them. Third, they like to get a big response from others, and doing something that hurts pretty much guarantees that. Finally, they're too young to know that what they are doing actually hurts the other person (or that the other person can feel pain at all), so they can't really put themselves in the other's place and feel guilty.

So now that you understand what's going on in your daughter's head, what should you do? First and foremost, never, ever hit, pinch, scratch, or hurt her back, and don't allow any other child to do so. Hurting her back will not teach her "how it feels" when she does it to someone else; it will only teach her that aggression is an acceptable way to interact with people. You are her model. If you are aggressive, or allow others to be aggressive, she will be as well. Similarly, don't encourage her to hit her stuffed animals or some inanimate object to get out her aggression. You want her to eventually use words instead of violent actions to express her feelings.

But don't make a big fuss when she does pinch or hit. Toddlers like any attention at all, even if it's negative, so it's best to quietly and calmly remove her from the situation and say, very simply, "We don't pinch. Pinching hurts." Try to respond the same way every time, since it's important that she learn to predict what you will do. If you let it slide even a few times, she'll keep trying, thinking that pinching might be acceptable every once in a while. Once she's out of the situation that elicited the behavior, don't leave her alone (that will scare her), and don't keep her away for long if she wants to go back. Just reiterate your message and give her a few minutes to settle down.

Try to identify a pattern here. Does she hurt people when she is tired, or hungry, or when there are too many children around? If you can predict when she is more likely to pinch or scratch, you might find that she is trying to tell you something. For example, if you remove her from the activity and she seems relieved, she may have been trying to tell you that she needed a break, but didn't know how to ask.

In most cases, toddler aggression subsides with the acquisition of alternative skills for getting needs met. As long as you continue to support the development of these skills, her pinching and hitting days are limited.