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Stop Hitting Yourself!

Jul21

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Hi Amy! Love reading your blog and Smackdown. Wondering if you have any advice for me and my bruised-head toddler.

My son is 15 months old and in the past 3 weeks has started to intentionally hit his head. He gets frustrated or mad and then finds the nearest hard object or floor, and slams his forehead repeatedly. If he’s in his crib and wakes up and finds I’m not there, he slams his head, and even his mouth and nose on the rails (he’s gotten bloody from this). If I stop him and hold his head, he slaps himself in the face.

It’s fairly frightening to watch, he seems to not care how much this hurts. I’m not sure if I should buy him a helmet or a therapist?? We have ramped up the sign language, and he is using it. We have also started saying “You’re mad!” just letting him know we see the frustration. But the head slamming continues.

I should probably mention that this all started when he started a new daycare. The transition was…terrible. He did not cope well with it. This week though, he is doing so much better, but I feel like the head slamming has turned into his habit. And he also knows I’ll step in to stop it. But seriously, I can’t just stand there and let him bloody himself.

Any experience with your boys on this? Any toddler helmets I should google?? Ugh… Parenthood is hard.

Thanks-
Bruised

Parenthood IS hard, mostly because children are very, supremely, super weird. What your son is doing actually still lands solidly in the “normal” column. Head-banging is a common, temporary (AND WEIRD) self-soothing/self-regulating technique for toddlers, and is more common among boys, for some reason. Here’s a whole article about it from BabyCenter. Which I already knew existed because I once had to Google this. I had TWO children who both self-soothed in bed by repeatedly and rhythmically slamming their heads against the crib mattress so hard the whole crib would shake and squeak. In retrospect, the mattress thing was way preferable to your little guy’s penchant for finding the nearest hard, unyielding object to slam against, but I do understand how unnerving the behavior is to watch.

Because yes, that article does mention the possibility of autism or other developmental disorders, but head banging ALONE is rarely ever cause to really worry. If your son was doing it ritualistically, outside of a tantrum or attention-seeking scenario, along with other red flags, like losing verbal skills instead of gaining them (sign language counts as a gained skill!), not making eye contact with you, then it would be something to bring up with your pediatrician. (Usual caveat: I am not an expert or doctor and am unable to diagnose developmental issues over the Internet. If your child is consistently, violently hurting himself, it’s best to consult with a doctor just in case.) My oldest is on the Spectrum, my youngest is not — both of them treated their mattress like a mosh pit for awhile, and then stopped. (And my middle son sucked his thumb, so that was HIS particular brand of self-soothing.) I still sometimes catch my 3 year old, the youngest, doing it lightly if his sleep gets interrupted slightly. If he naps in the car he might knock his head against the sides of his carseat, or if something wakes him up at night he might bounce it up and down a couple times.

So keep that in mind — as perverse as it sounds, there’s something about the banging that feels GOOD to your son. Everything I’ve read about this kind of behavior swears up and down that it looks worse than it is, and that toddlers know when to pull back when it stops feeling “good” and starts to hurt. The mouth/nose areas bleed pretty easily, for example, so it’s still possible that your son just caught a bad angle and didn’t intentionally mean to cause actual injury. (I’m also going to predict that he’s got a naturally high pain tolerance, which will come in handy during the rough-and-tumble, falling-off-bikes, ER-visit-laden years ahead of him.) Don’t make a huge deal over it or yell at him; just matter-of-factly continue to give him the words for his feelings, and pick him up and move him elsewhere and try to distract him like you would during a “regular” tantrum. If he slaps himself, I’d ignore it. (And probably prefer it to something that could result in a bloody nose.)

The fact that this started during a rocky daycare transition reinforces the idea that this is a stress-relieving/coping technique. His little world was turned upside down, he couldn’t tell you anything about what he was feeling or experiencing, and something he did out of frustration became something he now depends on to relieve/express his stress/worry/anger/whatever. Make sure the transition continues to improve and that the new daycare isn’t a continuing source of anxiety, and try to give him as much positive attention as possible whenever he’s calm and happy.

You might also want to Google around for toddler “sensory play” activities that involve rhythm, rocking, deep firm body pressure, etc. Rolling him up burrito style in a blanket or yoga mat, playing with a sit-and-spin, rocking chair, or Bilibo, etc. I bet he’d enjoy stuff like that…and maybe he’d even find a more appropriate form of self-regulation.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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12 Responses to “Stop Hitting Yourself!”

  1. Annie Jul 21 at 12:22 pm Reply Reply

    It sounds like he’s doing it for the attention, not self soothing. My son discovered that head banging (while awake) got a bug response from adults, and used it as a tantrum technique. When he was mad he would look around for something to bang his head on, usually the floor or my face. He would also bang his head on the rail of his crib when he was mad at being confined/alone. The behavior stopped when I learned to turn my back or walk away. Maybe he’s discovered that it’s an easy way to get attention at day care. If you teach him that you won’t respond to it, he may give it up. You may have to enlist the people at day care in this program. Good luck!

  2. Tricia Jul 21 at 12:35 pm Reply Reply

    My 15mo does the same thing to soothe himself. When we’re in the car I know he’s about to fall asleep because he’ll rock side to side against the headrest. We also hear some pretty loud banging right before he falls asleep at home. It freaked us out at first and we’d run up there, but I think we actually made it worse because we interrupted his routine. It sounds odd, but I’m comforted when I hear the familiar banging because I know he’ll be asleep soon. 

  3. Anne Jul 21 at 1:02 pm Reply Reply

    Kids are weird. My little one did this for a little while. Now she soothes by fiddling with her belly button. Ignore it except for what Amalah said- if he seems otherwise normal, he’ll stop when it doesn’t get him what he wants.

  4. Chiara Jul 21 at 2:55 pm Reply Reply

    I’m an OT (not a paediatric OT, but I just finished school, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about child development, and being inundated with current thinking around this stuff). I thought I’d give you a brief lowdown on how a therapist might respond (with the obvious caveat that this is the internet, and this is my semi-professional opinion and shouldn’t replace and real live professional’s opinion). My immediate response to this is that it’s probably a sensory seeking behaviour (like Amy said at the end). Kids with autism usually have trouble regulating sensory input, which is why Amy mentioned this is an early sign of autism for some kids. BUT, everybody has sensory patterns whether or not they have a sensory processing problem (e.g. I am very sensitive to sound and can’t sleep without earplugs in/ can’t read unless it’s really quiet). Some kids really like the sensory input of intense movement, they find it soothing (like I find it soothing to be able to control noise). Like Amy said, I’d look into trying out some other big movements that give him the same soothing effect but don’t give him a bloody nose. Putting him in a helmet might be a way around this. He might calm down if you give him a deep massage when he’s starting to feel agitated, or if you wrap him up like a burrito really tightly in a blanket. Do you still have a cradle or a rocking chair that he can sit in and rock before he goes to bed? The general therapy idea is to think of other more appropriate activities he can engage in that give him the same sensations but aren’t hurting him. 

  5. Elizabeth Jul 21 at 3:45 pm Reply Reply

    Gently pat his forehead (what my mom would call a love pat. Hard enough that you feel it, but not so hard that it stings) repeatedly until he stops banging his head. So, pat-pat-pat for 30 seconds, stop, and see if he tries again. If he tries to bang again, pat-pat-pat again for another 30 seconds. rinse, repeat.

    I have a cousin with autism that was a head banger and his therapist recommended the patting. But this technique also worked very well when my son (not autistic or on the spectrum) was that age as well.

    Good luck!

  6. Andrea Jul 21 at 7:18 pm Reply Reply

    My son (now two years old) has done this since his first birthday, and continues to do it. At first, I think it was his way of dealing with frustration, but now that he’s older and able to communicate better, I believe he does it for attention. He looks at us while he is doing it now, so we stopped running over to stop him like we did when he was younger. We have noticed that as he has gotten older, he does it with far less force (likely because he is realizing it hurts!) It’s an awful habit, and family and friends will look at you like you are nuts for allowing it to happen, but I just explain that “it’s just what he does” and he will be fine.

  7. traci Jul 22 at 12:16 am Reply Reply

    I would suggest offering a safe alternative. It’s great that you are labeling his emotions–very important stuff! Maybe provide something like a pillow to hit or playdough to squish. If he must have the sensory input on the head maybe something like a blow up toy (sock em boppers, blow up bat etc.) So that he gets the feeling he craves without causing injury. Language to use: I see you’re angry. It’s ok to be angry but it’s not ok to hurt ourselves try this instead (specify what you want him to do).

  8. Jackie Jul 22 at 11:17 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter is now 5, but around 15 months she would throw terrible tantrums and bang her head on any hard surface she could find (most often the floor). My in-laws came to visit one day after a particularly bad incident and when they saw her with a giant welt on her forehead they both began to laugh. I thought it was horribly rude until they explained that they had pictures of my husband with the same welt and my father-in-law. Apparently it is genetic and something they all outgrew. She is now a completely normal happy girl and the head banging ended after a month or two without any particular intervention on my part. Good luck – hope it ends quickly for you too!

  9. Chasity Jul 23 at 4:31 pm Reply Reply

    So happy to have come across this and find out that it’s relatively normal. Pretty sure if my son started doing this (he’s not born yet – 7ish more weeks!) I would freak out and immediately think he had some weird obsession with causing himself pain and would later become a sociopath or something. I know, I watch to much SVU. 

  10. Kate Jul 24 at 11:11 am Reply Reply

    Oy. Our daughter went through a similar phase – though for a while I wasn’t sure it was a phase since it lasted for 2 years! Ages 2-4 she would bang her heels bloody on the wood floors and claw her face and arms whenever she got really upset. Pretty horrific for us. And once she was able to talk about it she would say that she just got so mad she couldn’t help it.

    For whatever reason, it never happened except when she was with my husband or I (like she felt safe enough to lose her shtuff I guess), so at least our daycare provider never felt the need to call an exorcist.

    Gradually, it happened less and less as she was better able to express herself (even when that sounded like “i hate you stupid stupidhead!”) and we were able to direct her to less destructive ways to express her temper (like disassembling our playroom interlocking ABC floor tiles). 

    Hope your little guy comes around soon. Hang in there!

  11. Missi Jul 29 at 8:52 pm Reply Reply

    A family I cared for had this issue with their son at about the same age. It freaked us all out! They ended up duct taping those pipe insulation wraps around the bars of the crib. That helped to at least ease their minds when he started banging his head. His phase didn’t last very long, and now he’s an amazing 10-year-old who kills it at soccer!

  12. JenVegas Aug 01 at 11:59 am Reply Reply

    My kid, now almost 4, did this for a while too when he was younger. Head banging and then shaking his head vigorously until he got dizzy and fell down, smacking himself when he was frustrated. But he grew out of it and he’s none the worse for wear now. Mostly. Although he does tell some questionable knock knock jokes so there MIGHT be some brain damage…or he just has his dad’s sense of humor. It’s so hard to tell sometimes.

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