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Nothing to pull your hair out over

POSTED: July 14, 2014 4:14 p.m.
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John Rosemond

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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. That’s what we’ve done but it has not stopped. It’s now gotten so bad that I’ve cut her hair because the side she pulls has gotten so short. I just don’t 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. It’s the sort of thing that professionals say when they have no explanation but can’t admit it to themselves much less anyone else. Under those circumstances, “she’s doing it (whatever it might be) for attention” becomes a default explanation. As such, it’s meaningless and decidedly unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because it implies that something is wrong in the child’s 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 “just ignore it.” That’s a default recommendation —again, the sort of thing professionals advise when they’re at a loss for advice. The fact is that misbehavior of any sort is very difficult to ignore. It’s harder still to ignore a child who is causing herself harm. Then, when attempts to ignore don’t 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 daughter’s hair-pulling is “children do odd things, and odd things are more likely when lots of change is taking place in a child’s life.” In short order, you moved from one home to another and a second child was born. That’s a lot of change. Maybe there’s a relationship between all that change and your daughter’s hair-pulling. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe she’d 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?

I’ve 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 it’s already developed (as in your daughter’s case), reverse its course.

You said you don’t know what to do, but you’ve 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 hair’s 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.

Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com and parentguru.com.

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