As you entered the toddler years with your formerly sweet-tempered infant, you were probably prepared for a teensy bit of aggression.
You’ve heard the stories of preschoolers taking a bite out of one another on the playground and personally witnessed a feisty 2-year-old hit their mother in the middle of a supermarket tantrum.
This is all pretty normal, developmentally speaking: Toddlers are little people with big emotions, and sometimes laying the smack down is their only way of letting us grownups know they’re grumpy, tired, hungry, or just plain mad.
But what if your toddler is taking out their frustration on themselves? It’s scary to watch your child hit their head with their own hand or bang their head against a wall.
Is that expected, too, or something to be worried about?
Here’s why your child has turned into a solo fight club and what you can do to help.
Here are a few reasons your toddler might be reacting this way:
Lack of communication skills
If your child is feeling big emotions — like anger, jealousy, fear, or confusion — but their vocab hasn’t caught up yet, hitting can seem like the only way of telling you what’s going on in their little head. They may also be annoyed with themselves for not being able to express how they’re feeling, and it can be a natural response to smack their own head in frustration.
Self-soothing or sensory-seeking
Some kids crave physical sensory experiences more than others or have a slightly dulled sense of pain; in response, they might turn to hitting themselves to fulfill the desire for physical stimulation. Some kids also turn to repetitive physical movements as a way of self-soothing when they’re stressed or tired.
It gets a reaction
Toddlers are tiny narcissists; they really like having your undivided attention and they’ll do almost anything to get it. If you had a big reaction the first time they hit themselves, they might be repeating the behavior to keep getting a rise out of you. (No judgment — most parents would react negatively to their kid smacking their own head.)
Or it could be to gain a positive reaction: Maybe your child was copying someone else’s behavior, you or your partner laughed, and now they’re seeking that positive reinforcement again.
Something is hurting them
If your child has an ear infection or is teething but can’t tell you, they may hit themselves to clue you into their discomfort.
Before you can tackle long-term solutions, you need to figure out some short-term ones to prevent injury in the moment. If your child is actively banging their head, make sure sharp edges and corners are protected.
You may also choose to wrap your arms firmly — but not too tightly — around them to prevent the behavior from continuing. (For sensory-seeking kids, a great big bear hug can actually give them some of the input they’re looking for!)
As for the long term, you have some choices. In certain situations, it might be best to ignore the behavior. For example, if you think your child is doing it to get a reaction out of you, they’ll probably stop when they realize it no longer gives them any of your attention.
In other situations, though, you may want to test out the following strategies to see if any of them stop the behavior.
If your child is frustrated, in pain, or seeking sensory input, you don’t want to ignore the fact that they’re trying to communicate that to you. Here’s how you can help.
Address any physical needs
If your child is clearly hitting themselves because they’re hungry, cold, teething, or thirsty, you won’t be able to get anywhere with their behavior until their physical needs are met.
Try to make them more comfortable, then show them how they can let you know in the future that they need something from you.
You should also try to pay attention to these patterns. If you notice they hit themselves whenever their diaper is wet or they skip snack time, you can try to preemptively meet these needs before they devolve into hitting.
It’s never too early to teach your child the right way to express their anger or frustration.
If they’re hitting themselves because their block tower fell over again, try showing them an appropriate way to vent. They can hit a pillow or stuffed animal, stomp in place, give themselves a big squeeze, or leave the room for a break.
Depending on your child, you may also be able to introduce them to some kid-friendly mindfulness techniques — like deep breathing — to stay calm in frustrating moments.
Acknowledge what they’re going through
Sometimes we just want to be heard, right? This applies to kids, too!
You’d be surprised how quickly some kids’ big reactions can be diffused when their parent or caregiver gets down on their level and acknowledges that what they’re going through is hard.
Not only does it validate their feelings, it shows them that you care about them — and understand how they feel.
The next time your toddler is hitting themselves because you told them they couldn’t have cookies for lunch, turn your attention to them and say emphatically, “I know! It’s SO frustrating, isn’t it? I wish I could eat cookies for lunch, too!”
Then, when your child is calmer, you can move on to explain why you can’t eat cookies for lunch — and how they can react better next time.
Help them label big feelings
We all tend to lump feelings into “good” and “bad” categories, but that can make it hard for your toddler to react appropriately to different levels of “bad” feelings (like anger versus frustration or fear versus confusion).
Giving them the specific words to describe the whole range of human emotions can help them understand how to verbally share their complicated emotions with you. Plus, it may avoid some communication-related meltdowns in the future.
There are lots of resources online for helping kids identify big feelings. You can:
- Print out flashcards or feeling posters.
- Buy toddler-friendly picture books.
- Role-play with dolls or stuffed animals.
- Watch television shows focused on emotional regulation (together, so you can talk about it!).
- Serve as a role model yourself by labeling your own feelings in front of your child throughout the day.
While this is fairly typical behavior that your child will likely grow out of (especially if you give them some new coping tools!), there are a few signs that something else could be going on and that you might need a professional’s assistance.
You may need to seek outside help if:
- You’ve tried to stop the behavior with the usual strategies and nothing has changed or it’s gotten worse.
- Your child is injuring themselves (giving themselves bumps, bruises, or scratches).
- Your child has delayed speech or seems unable to hear you clearly.
- Your child is showing signs of physical illness, like fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, or irritability.
- Your child also has symptoms of a developmental condition, like autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder.
For the most part, this behavior is a phase: As your toddler figures out better ways to communicate with you, self-soothe, or get your attention, they should stop using this particular tactic to get what they want or need.
This is especially true if your toddler is otherwise developing as expected.
The only time this type of behavior could be a red flag for a developmental disorder like autism is if it’s not the only symptom you’ve noticed.
If your child hits themselves frequently and struggles to make eye contact, isn’t interested in social interaction, performs repetitive behaviors, or has delayed speech or motor skills, there could be a broader diagnosis at play.
If you’ve observed a few other troubling signs along with your toddler’s self-injurious behavior, it’s smart to give your doctor a call.
They may meet with you and your child to do a physical exam and ask you a bunch of questions about your child’s growth and development. They could determine that everything is fine, or they may refer you to a specialist who can evaluate your child more thoroughly.
But even if you haven’t noticed other symptoms, it’s still OK to call your child’s doctor and get advice. They see these behaviors all the time and have a good handle on what’s just a phase and what might need to be checked out.
If you’re not sure where to start or what strategy might work best for your child, ask your doctor for help.
In the majority of situations, a toddler hitting themselves in the head is a weird — but not unusual — phase of development.
When you combine a toddler’s low frustration tolerance with limited communication skills and a strong need for parental attention, it’s easy to see how hitting themselves seems like a reasonable way to get what they want or tell you how they feel.
You can usually problem-solve this behavior at home, but if you’re struggling to stop it — or have noticed other symptoms suggesting there could be a delay or disorder causing the behavior — don’t hesitate to give your doctor a call.