Some toddlers hit themselves on purpose. How can you help your child if this happens?
Some children may intentionally self-harm by banging their heads or slapping themselves. For parents, this behaviour can be worrisome. How can you help your child if this happens to them?
Why would a child hit themself?
Most often, a child will hit themself because they feel overwhelmed by their emotions. They’re not yet able to express their needs and frustrations. This may be the case among toddlers who can’t speak yet or children who are trying to communicate frustration when their parents don’t understand.
Your child has a right to be angry, but it’s important to teach them how to express their feelings without hitting themself.
This type of behaviour can also be a sign of a developmental disorder, such as autism or a brain injury. That being said, a child who hits themself does not necessarily have a disorder. A child who is neglected or abused may also hit themself because they’re understimulated.
How to cope
Seeing your child hit themself can be upsetting for parents, but a toddler will rarely go so far as to seriously hurt themself. Although it may seem strange, a child may feel a real sense of relief when they hurt themself, because it distracts them from their frustration.
The behaviour can start to manifest in babies (who may bang their head on the bars of their crib, for example) and usually stops around the age of 5 or 6, once the child is better at speaking and managing their emotions. It’s also more common in boys than in girls.
How to help your child
- Stay calm and try not to get angry. Use a soft, comforting voice when you talk to your child. Put their experience into words. For example, you could say: “You’re very angry,” “Feeling frustrated is no fun.” Articulating your child’s emotions will help them learn to recognize them.
- Be present with your child throughout their tantrum. Don’t worry, you won’t encourage your child’s tantrum by staying with them. They need you to calm down. Don’t ignore them or send them to their room.
- If your child is banging their head on a hard surface, move them onto a rug or place a soft object under their head and speak to them in a reassuring voice. You can also position yourself between them and the hard surface. Don’t try to stop your child from hitting themself by restraining their arms, as this could make their anger worse.
- Ask your child what they need to calm down: “Would you like a hug?” “Do you need your blankie?” “Do you want to calmly read a book?” Some children like being held by their parents, while others don’t.
- Suggest ideas to help alleviate their anger: “Would you like to pet the dog?” “Do you want to run as fast as you can?” “Would you like me to pick you up?”
After the tantrum
- Calmly talk to your child about what they just experienced: “You were feeling very angry, weren’t you?” “Next time, let me know as soon as you start feeling a little bit of anger inside of you.”
- Give your child ideas for how they can express their anger next time. For example, you could tell them to take a deep breath and blow hard as they can, as if they’re trying to blow out a candle. You could also ask them to punch a pillow or stuffed toy.
- Help your child understand that their emotions are normal. All emotions, even negative ones, have the right to be expressed. For this reason, it’s important not to punish a child because they got angry. However, they do need to learn to express their emotions without hitting themself, and you can help.
- Talk to your child about what you do to calm down when you’re feeling angry: “When I get angry, I go for a walk to feel better,” or “I take deep breaths.” You’re an important role model for them.
Things to keep in mind
A child who hits themself is expressing an emotion and they need help to learn how to deal with it.
Stay close to your child during their tantrum and avoid scolding them.
Help your child calm down and find better ways to express their anger next time.
Scientific review: Nancy Heath, Professor at McGill University and Director of the Development and Intrapersonal Resilience Research Team
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2018