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Stop Hitting Yourself!

Stop Hitting Yourself!

By Amalah

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.

Published July 21, 2014. Last updated October 8, 2017.
Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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