Last updated January 7th, 2021
One of the phase that most of the children (and mine included) go through is, hitting themselves in the head, or biting or harming themselves in some manner when frustrated. I’m sure you must have witnessed your toddler hitting himself in the head when he’s denied something or when he’s embarrassed.
I remember seeing my son smacking himself in the face when I tell him that he was not supposed to do something in that way and I was shocked to see his reaction and thinking why would he try to hurt himself on such a silly matter.
With tons of research and advice by my pediatrician, here’s what I learned. It is completely normal behavior and a phase that a toddler goes through and not a matter of concern. This behavior can start as early as 6 months old and peaks around when they are 18 to 24 months old. Remember all of their behavior is a way of communication. If they are trying to inflict harm on themselves, most probably they are either frustrated or embarrassed by themselves. A toddler at this age has a very limited vocabulary and can get frustrated if they are not able to communicate about their wants or needs. The hitting on the head or biting can be a way of self-stimulation to them. Try to be on the lookout for the triggers, the patterns, pay close attention to when do they behave like this, what happened before they did this? The best approach to this behavior is being calm and helping them label their emotions, on whether they are feeling ‘sad’ or ‘angry’.
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Why does your toddler hit himself in the head?
It’s hard to see our child be upset and more hurtful when they reach to a point of frustration and anger that they start hitting themselves. We often see kids hitting others, but there are times when they take out their frustration on themselves. Kids are discovering their world all the time and when you try to stop your toddler from doing this; they get angry.
One of the main reasons why your toddler gets frustrated is their incapability to convey something to you or make you understand their point of view. We, as parents, sometimes cannot deal with negative emotions and for our toddlers too, it becomes extremely challenging. This is where the ‘hands start flying’ when they are not able to do something out of inability or when they are not allowed to. You need to understand that your toddler hitting himself is a way of letting out his steam.
Excitement or Embarrassment
Like frustration, kids get excited and embarrassed very easily. I remember when I corrected my son on how he should hold the spoon, he ‘facepalmed’ himself out of embarrassment.
As kids clap their hands or jump up and down in excitement, banging their head also becomes a sensory way of managing their emotions and is completely normal.
Teething or an ear infection can also be one of the underlying reasons why your toddler hits himself. As I told you above, their behavior is a way of communicating to you. So, for instance, he may hit himself on the side of the head to try to self-soothe his irritation from an ear infection.
Look for signs and cues from your toddler if they are not angry or excited, then they might be in pain. You child may be teething, or his ears are troubling and a slap on their face sort of relieves them from this pain. So, going to your pediatrician is a good way to rule out if there’s an underlying medical condition that you’re not aware of.
How can you stop your toddler from hitting himself
Although it might be just a phase, it’s better to have a plan in place to deal with such situations. Here are some of the pointers that helped me to control such situations calmly.
Restrain your toddler physically
I’m not talking about dragging your kid to a corner and tying him up (Just Kidding!). When your toddler starts hitting themselves, try to hug him. You may get a hit or two in the process, but hey, that’s way better than them hitting themselves up. Hug your child and soothe him through your words; this can easily make the episode fade away.
Try to understand the root of the problem
What made him tick? What did you say or what was the situation that pushed him to hit himself are the questions you need to have answers for. I remember my son throwing a fit when I told him that it’s time for him to have his dinner and keep his toys away. He did not accept the sudden transition then, and so the next time what I did was, announce it to him in advance that he had 5 more minutes to play and then it’s time for dinner. This way, he was able to adjust to the transition.
When you know the reason behind this behavior, you can easily change your way of doing things around him and reduce such episodes.
Soothe him with your words
This is not the time to teach him a lesson or trying to make him understand his behavior. All you have to do is be there with him, talk to him calmly and identify his emotions. Tell him that you understand his feelings of being angry or sad.
You can give him a soft toy to hold on to and make sure to remove all sharp objects away from him. When your child recognizes that you understand their feelings and sees that you’re calm and composed, that is what he learns from you. Once the situation has passed, then you can talk to your toddler calmly about his behavior and may give him a ‘time-out’.
Label their emotions
Your kid’s vocabulary is very limited and doesn’t have words yet to describe their feelings. Identify their emotions and talk to them about it, for instance, say, “I understand why you’re mad”, or “no wonder it made you so mad”. When you label their emotions like, ‘angry’, or ‘sad’ it helps them recognize and identify their emotions, and are less likely to hit themselves again.
What not to do when your toddler hits themselves
Don’t yell or get angry
I remember watching a video recently where the toddler is throwing a tantrum, and her dad is just sitting nearby calmly the whole time, observing her and keeping any sharp objects away. The patience the dad had in the video is something we all need to inculcate in our lives. Toddlers react in a better way if you stay calm with them. Yelling at them or getting angry at them will only make the situation worse where they might try to harm themselves more.
Even when the situation gets very frustrating for you, you need to maintain your calm. Remember to breathe in and out, take a moment, take out your ‘patient hat’ and talk to them while recognizing their emotions. Trust me on this; this can become a great example for your kid on how to react in such situations.
Don’t hit them
Hitting them during such a situation is the worst thing you can do. Don’t apply the phrase of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, your child will react more negatively if you hit or spank them.
Children are quick learners, and most of all, what they learn at such a young age is from their parents or caregivers. So, if you’re trying to model positive attitude for your child, hitting them as a solution to the problem will be confusing for them. Avoid any type of power struggles with your toddler, which involves force.
Don’t fall under peer pressure
In case such an episode takes place in public or front of your friends and family, do not take any extreme step because you think it’s embarrassing and the spotlight is on you and people will judge you on how you tackle the situation.
Do not let these feelings of guilt or people’s judgments dictate your choice on how you deal with your child when they are hitting themselves. In such situations, take a step back and reconsider your reaction on your child.
When should you be concerned?
Toddlers hitting themselves usually are not a matter of concern and are considered as a phase. But a consistent habit of self-harming is concerning and may be associated with a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism.
Another concern is if your toddler is hitting himself too hard, so much so that the hit leaves bruises on their heads and faces. I would recommend you to visit a pediatrician to get more clarification on what might the underlying problem be.
If you think the above conditions don’t apply with what you’re experiencing, then it’s better to write down or film their behavior and show it to your pediatrician. Talking to your doctor may also give you peace of mind and more clarification on the situation.
It is completely okay for you to feel frustrated, but you become a parent when you hide those frustrations and keep your child’s emotion the priority and understanding the cause of such outbursts. I, for one, very well know that it’s not easy to maintain your calm when you have so much to deal with while your child keeps harming themselves, but teaching them to have a positive attitude will only happen by you staying calm. So, love them, kiss them and give them your attention and they will slowly stop reacting in such a manner.
And Mamas remember, this too shall pass!
Located in India and a mother to a joyfully mischievous son, Kelin is the wife of the world’s most patient man and a busy homemaker. When she’s not running after her kid, Kelin is busy reading, travelling, and penning down words on her laptop. She believes the world will always try to instil ‘mom guilt’ in new mothers, but she goes by the maxim ‘a mother knows best’.