Toddler Pinching Playmates

Dear Dr. Laura,
My wonderful daughter is 22 months old, and the joy of my life. I am a single mom, and I have the luxury of working just half time while my mom cares for my daughter. We have a pretty great situation and we're both very happy. I have my MSW and have been thoroughly educated on Attachment Theory and all sorts of other other developmental theories and information that has been the foundation of my parenting. I thoroughly believe in parenting with love and empathy and don't believe in punishment; basically, I practice what you preach. When I was introduced to your emails by a good friend, it was exactly what I needed to inspire me further to be just the mother I want to be. I feel like I needed to give you that background so that you know my parenting style and will hopefully understand that I have exhausted all options and approaches that I'm comfortable using to deal with this problem.

So here's my problem: My daughter has been pinching other kids since the time she was about 15-16 months old. She goes for the face - it started out with the eyes, then the nose, and most recently she's been going for the mouth/cheek area. When the behavior started, it appeared completely unprovoked, and I couldn't see any reason why she would have done it. It happened all the time when she was around kids her age, or even younger. She doesn't typically attempt this on older kids, but it has happened on occasion. Most recently, it happens when she gets mad and wants something that another child has, so at least this makes some sense to me. And, luckily, it seems to be decreasing as she's getting older. I'm hoping the behavior is on its way out, but I'm still perplexed by it and would love your input.

The other thing that stumped me about this is that she is an incredibly empathic little girl, especially for her age. She always notices when someone is happy or sad, comments on it, and responds appropriately. I would point out when she pinched a child that it hurts him and makes him sad, but this didn't seem to matter in these situations. She kept on doing it, and often, it seemed, just to get a reaction from me.

I realize that kids go through "phases" like these, but this seems to have been going on really long. And as I mentioned before, it was so completely unprovoked in the beginning that I'm curious as to why it happened. I would like to think of myself as very aware of and attuned to my daughter, and I still could not understand why it was happening. I thought maybe she was feeling somehow disconnected from me, which prompted the behavior, but no matter what I tried to "reconnect" it didn't make a difference.

Ok, so my question is: Why do you think she was/is doing this and what could I do to prevent it?

Thank you so very much for your insight and help! And thanks for your continued support on this wonderful journey of motherhood. You always seem to know exactly what I need to hear to fill up my cup another day. I am so grateful for your service.
Sincerely,
Laura

Dear Laura,
What a great question! Here is an empathic little girl who gets great parenting and does not get punished. And yet -- apparently for no reason -- she begins pinching other kids. (Usually not older kids or adults, interestingly.) And then she keeps doing it, for months. Why?

Is it really that she is pinching for no reason, or is is possible that we just can't see the reason?

Maybe we can find a clue in the puzzling fact that your empathic daughter seems not to care that she hurts her victims. We all know that when we are in the grip of big emotions we can ride roughshod over other peoples' feelings. So even an empathic person can sometimes hurt others and not even be able to care. What this tells us is that your daughter is not just pinching for no reason. She has some big feelings inside her that drive her to do it.

Of course, if she is mad and wants a toy, it makes sense. But what about when there seems to be no reason? I suspect that she actually had a reason for pinching, a reason so strong that at that moment she doesn't care about the other person. That reason, I feel safe conjecturing, must be a passionate emotion, because it is likely that only such a strong feeling would have led her to act aggressively. I don't believe that children, even such young children, WANT to hurt others. I think they just have no impulse control and find themselves feeling big emotions that make them uncomfortable, so they lash out.

What passionate emotion could she be feeling?

Obviously, we can't really know, but here are some ideas that might help.

1. Many little ones your daughter's age begin biting or hitting their mothers. We may be able to learn from that phenomena. The way this is traditionally understood is that they don't like feeling so dependent on someone they are realizing could leave them, and this is a way of expressing their angry and fearful feelings. She might be expressing the same feelings but it feels safer to her to direct them toward small people than toward her beloved mother.

2. Many little ones your daughter's age are aggressive with peers even when the peers don't appear to have done anything to provoke them. These are usually very sensitive children who get overstimulated in playdate situations and respond by being aggressive with the other kids. This usually happens when they feel disconnected from the parent, but it can also happen just because they are a bit overwhelmed by the social interaction with the other child. In this case the passionate emotion would be fear. When we are afraid, we are in the grip of fight or flight emotions, and our playmates look like the enemy, maybe even an enemy we need to attack.

3. Sometimes children get aggressive when they just need to cry. Most of us who practice attachment parenting prioritize meeting our children's needs, which is great. Sometimes, unfortunately, we confuse this with the idea that our children should never cry. But all young children from time to time have big feelings they need to let out by crying and raging. If we can't accept those feelings, they don't get the chance. So our child keeps pushing limits and getting more and more whiney, because he just needs a chance to cry. You would know if this is the case because in addition to lashing out aggressively, your daughter might be oppositional or rigid or demanding.

4. If we don't clearly set limits, toddlers will often push to find out where those limits are. This is usually the case when we see them watching for our reaction. Little ones want desperately to feel powerful in the world. When we respond dramatically they love that they were able to provoke that big response. That can set up a habit or pattern, so that they use their powerful action (in this case, pinching) whenever they feel a bit lost or overlooked. In this case, the passionate emotion would be a desire to make a difference, to have an impact.

Even as a tuned-in mom, you can't hope to understand all of your daughter's passionate emotions. Many things you don't even notice might scare her or make her sad. Because she is not old enough to have much impulse control, she "acts out" the emotions by attacking someone else.

Your pointing out that the other person is hurt is the last thing she wants to hear at that point, so it doesn't really work. If she is fending off uncomfortable feelings by attacking, she doesn't want to open her heart to her victim's distress, because that would let her own distress in as well. She needs to stay defended, so she genuinely seems as if she doesn't care. The only way she could care would be to feel her own fend-off feelings.

I am sure that as your daughter gets older this behavior will disappear. But I know you want to know how to prevent it. Here are six ideas.

1. Hover. I am sorry to say that the best prevention is simply to hover as she interacts with other kids, because you know that she will resort to pinching if she has feelings she can't handle. Here is a letter with advice I wrote to another mom whose son was aggressive on playdates. I realize your situation is somewhat different, but I think it might be helpful in describing the hovering and social skill teaching.

2. Redirect. Another possible prevention is redirection with a worry ball. You know those little squeezy balls? Get one for your daughter and teach her that while people are not for pinching, balls are for pinching. She can squeeze and pinch it as much as she wants. Anytime she seems stressed, hand her the ball. She may even start carrying it around to play with to manage her own stress level.

3. Play it out. I think it would be fascinating to "playact" a pinching scene with her, using stuffed animals that have hands, like a monkey. Pick them up and do both voices. Have one pinch the other and the victim cry. See how your daughter responds. Then hand her the animals. See if she repeats your scene. If so, you have touched a nerve and the play is helping her to work something out. Pay attention to what she says and see if you can learn anything from what she does. Most likely, she will just want you to act it out over and over again, which is also a safe way for her to process her feelings, rather than acting them out.

4. Tell Stories. You might also see if you can find books that you can read to her that relate to aggression. Unfortunately, I have not come across one on pinching, but you could check out Teeth are not for biting, and Hands are not for hitting. You might want to find a book at the library on crabs, and point out that "Crabs pinch, people don't pinch."

5. Set Limits. Finally, I do recommend removing a child from any situation where she hurts another child. Be empathic, but definitely set the limit that pinching is not permissible play behavior. Soon she'll be saying "No pinching!" just before she pinches, and you'll know that she's gaining impulse control. So while it does not have an immediate effect, it definitely does help stop the behavior as the child gains the ability to stop herself.

6. Help her cry. What if she cries when you remove her? Terrific! She's feeling all those awful feelings that she's been trying to control by pinching. Empathize, so she feels safe to cry: "I'm sorry this is so hard...You're safe...I'm right here." Once she finishes crying, she'll be able to rejoin her playmates -- almost certainly without pinching.

I hope this is helpful. And I hope this behavior is ebbing on its own! Good luck, and please do let me know how this works out.
warmest wishes,
Dr. Laura

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