Stopping pinching

Question: My usually sunny and agreeable two-year-old has begun the distressing habit of pinching — hard. It began when she was tired or hungry so distracting her was easy. Now it has begun to appear a bit more regularly. She recently has been pinching another toddler who I know that she really loves…it seems quite unprovoked. We have tried distracting her, removing her from the victim and giving a time out and ignoring it…nothing seems to help her “get” that this behavior is unacceptable…people are telling me to pinch her back. It seems sort of primitive but I am getting desperate…the pinches hurt! Help
– Reagan

Answer: Whatever you do – DON’T PINCH BACK! It just isn’t worth it and it only works to shock the few two-year-olds who might make the connection between their acts of pinching and hurting someone else. In the long run, you want to be the parent who guides and comforts a child through trying moments rather than one who shocks and frightens.

Why is your daughter pinching others? – Because she can. Believe it or not, it probably feels good to your daughter to grab, pull and twist flesh between those strong little fingers. She also feels powerful when she gets a reaction, even if it’s cries of pain. If it feels good to her, her perspective has emotional and cognitive priority over everyone else’s perspective (to her that is).

Anticipate the pinching whenever possible. Stay within arms distance when she’s playing with a friend. Redirect her hands. The pinching behavior cannot be reinforced if her fingers never meet another person’s skin. Playdates will no longer be relaxing respites for you but they will be manageable if you go with realistic expectations of your daughter’s behavior. You can also try to introduce some interesting, new play materials that will captivate the children in a new way (though it’s clear the pinching isn’t provoked by the toys or the other children). The children may be ready for more challenging art materials or more involved dress-up/pretend props.

For your own sanity, leave playdates when she pinches. Expect you daughter to pinch as part of her current social repertoire. Tell her ahead of time that she may not pinch her friends and if she does, tell her you will take her home. It will take repeated experiences to convey this message to her. Be firm but not emotional with your daughter. Try to contain your own frustration and disappointment by having a Plan B. If she pinches, you can go home and read a magazine or catch up on some chores. She can play with games or play dough (play dough feels great to pinchers). Let her stay busy but explain simply that “friends may not pinch one another”. The natural consequence of “hurting our friends” is to choose to play by ourselves.

When your daughter pinches you, say firmly (but not theatrically) “that hurts” and remove yourself from her reach. Look away from her. She wants your attention and your approval. Your body language will say loud and clear that she cannot have your attention when she pinches. After a minute or two, you can tell her that you are ready to be with her if she does not pinch. If she does pinch you again (she might need to verify what you will do and check if she can provoke you further), simply repeat the sequence.

Pinching, like biting, is a difficult phase because the behavior strongly reinforces itself. Do not despair – your sunny agreeable daughter has not disappeared forever. Very soon, she will have a well-rounded social repertoire of language and actions that serve her much better than pinching.

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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