Your toddler hitting themselves in their head is reasonably typical behavior and a phase that a toddler goes through, not a matter of concern. It can start as early as 6 months old and peaks around 18 to 24 months old. Remember, all of their behavior is a way of communication. If they are trying to inflict harm on themselves, they are probably either frustrated or embarrassed by themselves.
A toddler has a very limited vocabulary and can get frustrated if they cannot communicate their wants or needs. The hitting on the head or biting can be a way of self-stimulation. Try to be on the lookout for the triggers, the patterns, pay close attention to when 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.’
One of the phases 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 told him that he was not supposed to do something that way, and I was shocked to see his reaction and thinking, why would he try to hurt himself on such a silly matter.
Why does your toddler hit himself in the head?
It’s hard to see our children be upset and more hurtful when they reach 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 discover their world all the time, and when you try to stop your toddler from doing this, they get angry.
One of the main reasons 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 cannot 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.
2. Excitement or embarrassment
Like frustration, kids get excited and embarrassed very easily. 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 heads also becomes a sensory way of managing their emotions and is entirely 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 with 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, they might be in pain.
Your 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 to deal with such situations. Here are some of the pointers that helped me control such situations calmly.
1. Restrain your toddler physically
When your toddler starts hitting themselves, try to hug him. Of course, 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.
2. 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 it was time to have his dinner and put his toys away.
He did not accept the sudden transition then, and so the next time what I did was, announce to him in advance that he had 5 more minutes to play, and then it was 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.
3. Soothe him with your words
This is not the time to teach him a lesson or 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.’
4. Label their emotions
Your kid’s vocabulary is limited, and doesn’t have words to describe their feelings. Identify their emotions and talk to them about these emotions. 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 feelings, and they are less likely to hit themselves again.
What not to do when your toddler hits themselves
Don’t yell or get angry
Toddlers react in a better way if you stay calm with them. Yelling at them or getting angry will only worsen the situation, where they might try to harm themselves more.
Even when the situation gets very frustrating, 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 an excellent 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 “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 a positive attitude for your child, hitting them as a solution to the problem will be confusing.
Avoid any type of power struggles with your toddler, which involves force.
Don’t fall under peer pressure
If such an episode takes place in public or in 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 to your child.
When should you be concerned?
Toddlers hitting themselves are usually not a matter of concern and are considered 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 visit a pediatrician to get more clarification on the underlying problem.
If you think the above conditions don’t apply to what you’re experiencing, 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 entirely okay for you to feel frustrated, but you become a parent when you hide those frustrations, keep your child’s emotions the priority, and understand 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 remember, this too shall pass!