We’ve talked recently about what to do if your toddler is hitting or biting. Although you certainly hoped your sweet kiddo wouldn’t be the hitting or biting type, you were probably also aware that these are common things many toddlers do out of frustration, for attention, or because they lack the communication skills necessary to get their point across. What you may not have been prepared for, though, was them hitting themselves.
Toddlers don’t just lash out at others to let their feelings loose. Sometimes, they may turn those big feelings inward by hitting themselves in the head with their own hands or banging their head against a wall or other structure. Although this is less common than hitting or biting others, it does happen and can be scary when it does. Let’s start with why a toddler might harm themselves in this way.
Why toddlers hit themselves
A toddler might hit themselves for many of the same sorts of reasons another toddler may hit someone else—namely, frustration over the fact that they can’t fully communicate their wants, needs, or feelings. They may also be seeking the attention the behavior receives, particularly if you had a big reaction the first time they did it—which would not be surprising, given that it may have been unexpected and shocking for you.
In some cases, as Healthline reports, it may also be a self-soothing or sensory-seeking behavior:
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.
But unlike hitting or biting others, there’s another reason a toddler may hit themselves in the head—they are in pain. If they are teething or they have an ear infection and can’t communicate what they’re feeling, they may hit their head to try to indicate or cope with it. If you notice they’re hitting their head or face in a particular spot, that can be a clue they’re feeling pain, so look for other symptoms.
How to handle it in the short-term
If your toddler starts hitting themselves, the first order of business is to 1) make sure they are physically safe, and 2) help them calm down. That may mean covering corners or sharp edges if they’re hitting their head on a piece of furniture, moving them or any objects they’re using out of reach, and wrapping your arms around them in a bear hug that is firm enough to prevent them from continuing to hit themselves (but not too tight). As Verywell Family recommends:
Taking your arms and preventing them from hitting themselves by blocking their fists is an option. This action can be comforting and might be enough to calm your toddler down and stop the self-injury. The goal is to create a safe, loving environment for kids to soften the pain or frustration that they’re feeling.
Particularly if what they’re seeking is that sensory input, a bear hug or this type of blocking may provide some of that input to help calm them. You could also try showing them a safer way to express their frustration, such as by hitting a pillow, stomping their feet, or taking slow, deep breaths. Depending on the child, a few drinks of water or a stuffed animal or pillow to squeeze might also help.
Talk to them in a calming voice and try to put words to their feelings and the situation by saying things like, “You seem like you feel really mad! It’s hard to leave the playground, isn’t it? I wish we could stay and play forever!” This helps them feel heard and understood and begins to give them the language they need to express their emotions.
How to handle it in the long-term
If the hitting isn’t an isolated incident, it’s important to start watching for patterns or triggers. There may be a specific physical need, such as they’re hungry, thirsty, teething, or tired. If you know what their triggers are, you can better head off the tantrum before it even begins, and they’ll eventually develop the language skills needed to communicate those needs.
When in doubt, if you’re concerned about the behavior, it’s always a good idea to talk to their pediatrician. In particular, here’s when Healthline suggests you make the call:
- 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.
Pediatricians see these behaviors often, so they’ll have advice on whether something is likely a phase or when it’s time to do a physical examination or refer you to a specialist. In the meantime, they may have other strategies in addition to the ones mentioned here that may be helpful for you and your child.