My toddler hits himself in the head when he’s upset

Why Does Your Toddler Hit Himself?

As children grow from infants into toddlers, they will start exploring their surroundings and communicating their wants and needs. However, their capabilities don't quite match their desire to do both of those things.

As a result, their inability to verbalize their wants or needs, combined with their struggle to navigate their environment successfully, can be a recipe for a temper tantrum. If they have a low tolerance for frustration, they may hit themselves as a way of expressing their exasperation.

If you notice this happening, take note of any triggers that led to the tantrum. Perhaps you said no to something your child really wanted to do. Or maybe, they were simply over-tired or hungry.

Once you recognize a pattern or a trigger that leads to the self-harming behavior, you may be able to prevent problems before they start. Just be sure to intervene before the fists start flying.


Step #4 Listen. Your support is a powerful antidote to the fear that causes hitting

While your child is upset, it helps them greatly when you can be loving and calm. They won’t have to be afraid of your impulsive behavior or your disapproval. Instead, your child can concentrate on letting all that tension tumble out.

Maybe they’ll cry. Or they may begin to perspire while they scream. Your child might arch their back in your arms, or throw themselves on the ground.

They might kick and flail.

Believe it or not, the more vigorous their reaction, the better the outcome of their emotional episode. They are expelling bad feelings—fear, in particular—using your calm presence as their signal that they are free to let go of the feelings that have infected their behavior.

Your Toddler May Be in Pain

Another explanation for toddlers suddenly hitting themselves, is that they may be in physical pain. For instance, toddlers that hit themselves on the side of the head may have an ear infection.

Meanwhile, babies who are teething may also hit themselves at times to cope with the pain in their gums. Sometimes, hitting can be self-soothing. Be on the lookout for signs your child may be in physical pain.

Pay attention to where they are hitting themselves. Sometimes kids are trying to communicate where it hurts. And, depending on the source of the pain, you may be able to treat your child at home.

If you are uncertain what is causing the pain, however, a trip to your child's pediatrician may be in order.

What Should You Do When Your Toddler Begins to Hit Himself?

As said earlier, kids do this because they are trying to communicate. So, when you punish them, you are telling them to keep their frustrations to themselves, which is not healthy. However, this should not make you ignore the behavior and assume that everything is okay. Note that this can cause injuries if not handled well. So, what should you do?

Parents and caregivers need to fine-tune their parenting skills when handling toddlers with this kind of behavior. They should stop the aggressive behavior gently but with seriousness. When your toddler begins to hit himself, hold his hand firmly but with kindness. When you do this, it sends a strong message that it is wrong to use his hands to hit himself.

You can also help your kid learn to use words instead of hitting himself, especially if he can speak well. Let him get used to expressing himself verbally. Tell him that hitting himself when he is angry is not the best way of expressing needs or feelings.

Is Self-Hitting Among Toddlers a Normal Behavior?

Since self-hitting is part of toddlers communicating their feelings and needs, you are right to call it normal behavior. When toddlers are hungry, tired, stressed, worried, feeling unwell, or want some attention, they become aggressive. Is there a way of passing a message to a parent or caregiver that all is not well? This kind of behavior is quite normal. Because they are powerless, the only thing they can do is to become aggressive to get what they want.

How do I get my toddler to stop hitting himself?

So, now that we know why your toddler might be hitting himself and when it’s cause for worry, how do you make them stop?

Even if you think it could be something worse, you have to engage with short-term solutions to keep your child from hurting themselves.

I once met a mom at a playground when my girls were much younger. We got to talking while our kids played merrily. Her toddler son came up to her and asked for a juice box. When the mom realized she’d forgotten one, he started punching himself in the face.

Other moms were aghast, but I knew what was going on. I happened to have a couple of extra juices in my bag, so I offered him one, and the behavior stopped. “Thank you so much! He keeps hitting himself like this. The lady at the daycare almost accused me of child abuse until she saw him hitting himself in the face,” she’d told me.

I was happy to share my tactics with this mom then as I am now with you. 🙂

Prevent injuries

If your toddler is in this phase, it is a wise idea to protect from injuries. In case you haven’t yet safeguarded sharp corners in your house, now is the time. You can find those foam corner bumpers or these more subtle ones. I still have them on the windowsills in my daughters’ rooms because they’re near their beds, and I don’t want them smacking their heads when they flop down onto the bed.

What if your child is actively hitting themselves? Wrap your arms around your child in a firm but not-too-tight way. This will keep them from harming themselves.

Ignore them

If your child isn’t causing any bruising or physical damage and is in no apparent danger, you can safely ignore them. This is a great option when toddlers try to get your attention because if you don’t reinforce the behavior, they’ll grow tired of this act and stop doing it.

Ensure physical needs are met

What if your child isn’t just seeking attention? If your child is in pain, needs sensory input, or is very frustrated trying to communicate with you, you need to see what you can do to make them more comfortable.

Watch for patterns.

If your child hits themselves when their diaper is wet, you can make a preemptive strike to check out the diaper at these times and help change them. When your child’s needs are met, they’re less likely to hit themselves.

Send them in a new direction

Children need our guidance and direction to learn how to express feelings properly. I’ve always told my girls that we’re allowed to feel our emotions. Everyone has feelings, and no one has the right to tell you how to feel or how you should feel.

That said, we need to learn appropriate ways of expressing those feelings. My girls laughed when I acted out scenarios because they thought it was funny to see a grownup throwing a tantrum. Silly as I was, it proved my point. Now both of them, when they’re angry, will use the same tactics I taught them for expressing anger and asking for help when moving through it.

I’ve taught them to take a break and come back when they’re frustrated with a project. Hitting a pillow is a good idea too. I also give them things they can squeeze, like play-dough. It feels really good to strangle that stuff.

Let them know you understand

Your toddler just wants you to understand them. So let them know that you get it. “I know you’re angry because your block set tipped over. You worked so hard on it. I can help you pick it up, and we can start over again.” It’s really that simple to validate their feelings and show you care. That’s what they need to hear.

If your toddler asks you for a cake for dinner and you say no (and rightfully so!) and they start hitting themselves, you can tell them you get how frustrated they are, and you wish you could have cake for dinner too, this puts you on their level. When they calm down, you can explain why cake isn’t a proper meal and how soon you can enjoy some cake together for dessert.

Teach them what to call those feelings

The trouble with toddlers and feelings is that they can feel them, but they have no idea what they’re called. You can role-play with their stuffed animals, label your own emotions, or get picture books that appropriately tackle the topic.

One last thing about toddlers hitting themselves…

A toddler hitting themselves in the face or head is definitely strange, but it’s not uncommon. It’s all part of development. When you deal with their communication issues and needs, though, you’ll find ways to stop them from doing this.

Most kids grow out of this on their own with the help of problem-solving behaviors like the ones I’ve detailed above. Should you notice any other unusual behavior or symptoms, though, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Leslie Berry Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs. She loves eating too much sushi, exercise, and jamming out on her Fender.

Here’s how it can work

I went to the park one afternoon with the baby, my toddler son, and his friend. At some point, the friend tried to hit my son when he was on the slide. I gently picked her up off the slide, telling her that I couldn’t let her hurt him or anyone else. She arched back and wailed at the top of her lungs. 

I continued to calmly talk to her and tell her that I couldn’t let her hurt herself or anyone else, and tried as gently as I could to maintain physical contact with her body. She screamed, “I want my mommy!” over and over. Certainly if her mother was right there, that would have been fine, but I didn’t feel totally safe walking home with the three kids with her in that state. It was a few blocks and I had the baby in a carrier. I was concerned that she wouldn’t listen to me if I needed her to hold my hand or not run so fast. I softly told her these things. 

There was a moment where I tried to give her a little more physical space and she took off running out of the playground towards our home. So I gently gathered her back up, telling her that I couldn’t let her go home by herself. The crying, holding and talking went on for quite some time, maybe 20-30 minutes, ebbing and flowing. I wasn’t sure what other parents were thinking. At one point one of the parents looked at me, smiled, and said, “I’m taking notes.”

Additionally, I was intermittently attending to my baby and my son, who sat close to me with a concerned look on his face.

We were now sitting on a bench and she started to tell me that she wanted to go on the swing. I told her that we had to wait until there were two swings available, for both toddlers, and she started to wail again. This ebbed and flowed a few times.

Finally, I felt like we could at least wander over to the swings, and as we got there, the other kid left so she and my son went on the swings together, with me pushing.

When it was time to go home, I asked them if they wanted me to stop the swing for them, or just let it stop by itself. The girl said that she wanted the swing to stop by itself, and slowly, slowly the swing came to a quiet stop. There was something deeply moving about everyone waiting patiently for the swing to stop.

As we walked home, she took my hand. When we got home she easily went to her parents. I took her mother aside and gave her a brief description of what had happened, and the next day I checked in about how her daughter had been that evening. Her mother said that she was super calm and very tired at bedtime.

When I saw her playing in the backyard the next day, she gave me a big hug.

–Laura Podwoski, Berkeley, CA


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