One night before dinner, Sarah Campbell* asked her two-year-old, Scott, to wash his hands. “He looked at me and, with an open hand, smacked his head,” she remembers. In the following weeks, Campbell noticed Scott was also striking himself when he was embarrassed. “When I picked him up early from daycare one afternoon, he got all shy and self-conscious and hit himself. The other kids thought it was funny, so he continued doing it,” she says.
Alanna Norman, an early childhood educator in Ottawa, had a two-year-old student who showed similar behaviours in class if things didn’t go his way. “He’d stop what he was doing, hit his head with his hands or sometimes even smack his head or body into a wall,” she says.
Though it may be alarming to parents, this behaviour is pretty common—about a quarter of toddlers will hit themselves in the face or head with some regularity, says Kiran Pure, a registered clinical child psychologist in Halifax. “Head banging often starts after about six months of age and peaks at 18 to 24 months,” he says.
Why do they do it? All behaviour is communicating something, says Alexandra Carter, a child psychologist in Port Moody, BC. So your child is likely frustrated or looking for attention. The banging or hitting may even be self-stimulatory—meaning it feels good and is meeting a sensory need. If the root cause isn’t obvious, Carter says families should spend a week recording observations. Look for patterns: Does it happen at a certain time of day? During a particular task? After a specific type of event? In a certain setting? Recording these details can help determine the context of the behaviour and what’s causing it.
Many kids who hit themselves are experiencing strong emotions they can’t express verbally. “The words related to the child’s feelings may not yet be in their lexicon,” Pure says. The best approach, he says, is to help your child label their emotions. Try saying, “you look angry” or “you seem sad,” and work on teaching them some positive coping strategies.
When the kid in her class starts getting physical, Norman cushions his head and then slowly helps him lie down. “We do breathing techniques. Then, when he is calm, we talk through the problem and provide him with the words and tools to use next time,” she says.
If there’s a clear trigger, Carter recommends modifying your kid’s environment or schedule to make it less likely for the behaviour to occur. For example, if your child hits their head when it’s time to turn off the TV and eat dinner, they may not manage transitions well. In this case, you could try creating a visual schedule to prepare for change, and use the countdown method. If your child seems to be in genuine distress, hold them, say something calming, give them an object they find comforting and remove nearby objects that can cause harm, advises Carter.
Toddlers may also hit themselves when they’re in pain, say, from teething or an ear infection. “This may be to create a distraction from the physical feeling,” says Pure. If kids can’t say what hurts, the banging may also be a way of communicating their pain to caregivers. Look for other symptoms—drooling, red cheeks and nighttime waking are signs of teething, while a fever, discomfort lying down and ear tugging could indicate an ear infection.
Some toddlers develop the habit of rocking and banging their head rhythmically while trying to fall asleep. “The rhythmic motion can result in soothing, similar to being in a rocking chair,” Pure says. Most kids grow out of this, but in the meantime, implement some safety and noise-control measures. If your kid is still sleeping in a crib, check regularly for unsecured nuts and bolts, as the rocking could loosen them. You can also hang fabric on the wall to dampen the banging or move the crib or bed away from the wall altogether.
While head banging is not necessarily something to worry about, Carter says that it can, in some cases, be a sign of an underlying neurodevelopmental disorder, such as autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “If your child is showing other symptoms, such as delayed language development, hand flapping or reduced interest in engagement with parents or peers, it’s a good idea to see a paediatrician,” she says.
If your toddler seems to be doing it for the shock value—perhaps you catch them smiling as they notice your and their peers’ reactions—it’s best to actively ignore these behaviours, which is what worked for Campbell after about a week. As long as they’re not causing major harm, disengage and don’t plead or negotiate. “Remember that attention is like a big happy-face sticker,” says Carter. “If you ignore it, it will eventually decrease.”
*Names have been changed