Q&A: 20-month-old scratcher

Kathy writes:

"I'm sorry about the long email but my husband and I are losing ourpatience fast. It all began with a recently trip to Jamaica. On our way there, our 20 month old son refused to nap. By the end of our trip, he was screaming, squirming and scratching at our faces. He's never been a scratcher but we just thought he was deliriously tired and acting out. While we were in Jamaica, he scratched our faces a handful of times but again it was only when he was tired. Our trip back was an absolute nightmare. My husband and I look like we got into a fight with a rabid tiger and lost. Since we've been back 3 days ago, the scratching has gotten out of control.

We've tried the serious voice and stern "No scratching. It hurts mommy/daddy." He will either not care or claw at us again. We moved to the "Ouch. That hurts" with a fake cry. His response is to scream at the top of his lungs... not the I'm sorry scream but the don't piss me off scream. We even tried the time out thing today but he was perfectly content to just sit there. We try to intercept his hand before it gets to our face but he's like a ninja. We rarely see it coming.

The scratching is sort of random. Sometimes he's tired or angry but other times we're having fun together and he'll reach out and take a piece of my face off. Everything that I've read says to be firm, consistent and wait it out but I'm not sure if we can wait weeks or even months. We won't have any skin left on our faces.

Any other tactics or advice? "

First off, I'd cut his nails and then file them down as far as you can without hurting him, just to reduce the efficacy of his weapons!

I have to say that it doesn't surprise me at all that your son is 20 months and is doing this. Remember how we've talked about the whole 18-month evil phase? The kids just get so frustrated and have no autonomy so they basically just lash out. And then something seems to ease around 21 months--they get more words, they seem to have more physical fluidity, and they just seem to be more in command and less stressed all the time.

What that means is that 20 months is the end of the build-up of frustration. I get dozens of questions from people about why their 20-month-olds won't eat, and that's all about controlling the one thing they can control. I think this scratching is the same thing--he can't control things and has so much anger and frustration inside of him. It's probably exacerbated by being back from vacation and feeling tired and off-kilter, and missing all the piña coladas and warmth of Jamaica.

I don't think you're going to be able to magically stop it, but I do think you might be able to ease it until he gets older and more able to deal with his conflicting emotions and urges. I think helping him express his feelings and wants might give him a little more space. So definitely start signing, if you haven't been doing any already. (And if you've been doing it but have tapered off, ramp up again.) People loooove the Signing Time DVDs, and you can also use the Michigan State ASL browser online (you need QuickTime on your computer to use it, but you can download it free if you don't already have it).

The other thing you could do is to verbalize his feelings for him. If you can tell he's getting frustrated with something, you can say "You're frustrated. That's making you feel angry and like you want to scratch something!" and then give him a chance to confirm. It's got to be so horrible at this age to have so many complex feelings and not be able to express them so adults can understand! If a grown-up gets what you're feeling and can tell you they understand, that makes things better, even just a little. Everyone just wants to be understood, no matter how old or young we are.

The part about it coming out of the blue is, I think, also just human nature. Think about times when you're carrying around something that's been bugging you, and sometimes you can only be angry about it or mention it when things are back to being calm or happy. And the person who has to hear your anger is blindsided by it. Same thing here, only with physical pain.

Aside from this, I think it's going to help you if you can think of it in terms not of your son acting naughty or trying to hurt you on purpose, but as a problem you need to solve together. Clearly he's feeling awful and angry and frustrated and is just lashing out because he's got nothing else. So whatever you can do to help him reconnect and feel like he's got some power over himself is going to help, and shutting him off (with time-outs or other "discipline" stuff that's really just punishment) is going to make things worse. But you knew that--I just thought it was worth reminding all of us of it again. (And again, and again. Parenting is hard, y'all.)

What else do you guys have for Kathy? Stories? I'm hanging on here by a thread with a chest cough and aching head, so I'm praying my younger one will take a nap (he's in the middle of dropping it) so I can, too.