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My son is two and testing his boundaries. In general, I'm comfortable with that and have no problem with him getting frustrated when he's not allowed to do something. Unfortunately, his normal mode of expressing his frustration is running his head into something. When he was younger he used to line up his head very carefully with the tile floor and then drop it as hard as he could. He gave that up after 10 or so times. Since then he tends to find the closest wall and run his head into it. Just one time, then he holds his head and is pathetic for a few seconds until he finds something else to do. I'm a little more concerned now though, he's bigger and faster and keeps clipping his head on door knobs. This morning he came close to knocking himself out.

I'm not sure how to "fix" this. We've been exercising the "ignore it" method, and it keeps the tantrums to a bare minimum (generally a few seconds). I'm open to play acting and possibly teaching him a more constructive way to be frustrated, but I'm unsure how to simulate frustration. Any suggestions for more constructive ways to express frustration are welcome as well.

Edit : I fear I've overstated the symptoms a bit. This isn't your classic head banging tantrum, he has never repeated the action within the same sitting or for the same reason. He attempts it once. If he is restrained he will generally throw himself into a laying position for 30 seconds and then go about his business. If he hits his head, he realizes it hurts, and doesn't get the reaction he wants, and stops. My concern is primarily that the life of a two year old is full of frustration and this is sometimes his reaction. I don't think I can train a two year old to suppress his frustration, instead I would like a way to redirect his emotion into an expression that's less potentially harmful.

We have discussed this with his pediatrician before (the tile thing was quite scary), and her attitude was primarily that he could not hurt himself (at that age) and would learn to stop doing it - which is at least partially true. It may even be the case that the accidental door knob to the temple this morning will set him straight on the dangers of running into walls as well.

He's not self-destructive in other ways and he doesn't seem to be doing it for attention (as he doesn't get any from it). If the frequency is important, I'd say I'm aware of him intentionally trying to hit his head approx 3 dozen times in the last 18 months.

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You mentioned 10 occurrences of dropping his head onto tile "as hard as he could." That is one reason I think it has to stop. My kid didn't hit her head 10 times in her entire 19 years of life. – tomjedrz Oct 27 '11 at 6:23
I think that actively discouraging the unwanted behaviors will help the child find alternatives, either through your own suggestion or by himself. And I do agree that this is needed. – tomjedrz Oct 27 '11 at 6:27
up vote 3 down vote accepted

This is pretty common -- frankly, head-butting or head-banging makes a more satisfying sound and causes less pain than its common adult/teen corollary: punching the wall. Icing on the cake, it's also less likely to damage your drywall. :)

If ignoring it completely doesn't end it, you still don't want to risk teaching your child that self-harm is a way to get attention by reprimanding him for hitting his head (which he's probably doing for the sound rather than as self-harm anyway).

So, punish him for the sound. "We do not bang on things in this house. The rules do not go away just because you are upset. Go to time out." is my usual approach. (A good time-out is silent anyway.) Then, when you are taking the child out of time out, make sure he knows he's not allowed to bang on things, and talk about what he can do when he's upset.

Little kids get relief from doing something physical with their strong emotions -- hitting something, throwing things, kicking and screaming, even when they don't elicit attention are intrinsically rewarding as forms of release. So, pick another form of release that you can offer your child as an alternative -- whatever you are comfortable with him doing.

In the mean time, don't worry too much. The head-banging thing is very common in toddlers -- especially those who lack the vocabulary to describe what they are feeling, which means they can't really begin to wrap their heads around it yet. Unless your child has a serious underlying problem (which you hopefully would have noticed because of other things), or is doing something really reckless (running on/near stairs or sharp objects, hitting something more dangerous than a wall, etc.) he's not likely to hurt himself.

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Due to the fact that this can have serious consequences I'd definitely suggest you go to visit a behavioural psychologist to get the best advice here.

Most frustration indicators are just annoying to have to put up with, but this can lead to head injuries so should be treated by a professional.

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+1, Agreed. When kids are younger and do this they really can't get significant force to do harm, my 1.5 year old still does it on occasion but can't really hurt himself yet. – MichaelF Oct 26 '11 at 14:21
@MichaelF: They could with a gravity assist. (i.e. diving off of something) – afrazier Oct 26 '11 at 19:13
True, but I've seen that happen regardless. Sometimes just for fun in playing on the sofa – MichaelF Oct 26 '11 at 19:40
Thanks for the advice. I'm still hoping to get some suggestions in the meantime. – Steve Jackson Oct 27 '11 at 2:46

This cannot be allowed to continue. His head is still big and heavy relative to his body, and his brain is developing. That he hits his head hard enough to get groggy is not a good sign.

I officiate high school water polo and youth soccer. If we see an athlete get groggy or lethargic after any form of contact to the head, the game stops and the athlete is removed and examined by a medical professional. We (the officials) are encouraged to be overly cautious in this area.

The next time he hits his head even slightly hard, whether intentional or accidental, take him to the doctor or urgent care.

Back to the question. There are two possible things going on here.

1/ He has figured out a behavior that gets a rise from you or that gets him what he wants. Did (or do) people laugh at it? Does it cause you to stop punishment or give in to demands?

2/ He has some form of underlying illness or condition that is prompting the head banging. It could be a lot of things.

Make sure that whatever reinforcement he might be getting stops, and apply negative consequences when he behaves dangerously. The consequences should be harsh; given the dangerous nature of whacking one's head against hard objects, you don't want to wait long to figure out if it worked. Be angry. You want to instill fear, because this behavior needs to stop. This is one of those things (like running into the street) where absolute compliance is the only option.

You seem to have figured out the pattern; pay close attention, intervene before the head hits what it is being aimed at, and punish him for the attempt.

If you can't get him to stop, even if you are successful at intervening before the actual head contact, go see a doctor. Don't wait long; perhaps three or four more occurrences. I would be inclined to start with a neurologist, although Rory's suggestion of a behavioral psychologist seems sensible as well.

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I'm a youth coach, I have some knowledge of concussions and the signs to look for. I hadn't thought it was quite this serious honestly, toddlers run their heads into things all the time accidentally. They're pretty sturdy. But the fact that he's much larger and faster than he's aware of does have me a bit more concerned about the consequences. Thank you for your response. – Steve Jackson Oct 27 '11 at 2:50
Sure, they bump into things, but rarely leading with the noggin. I could well be underestimating the resiliency of the toddler cranium, however. However, brain injuries are cumulative. – tomjedrz Oct 27 '11 at 6:23

One of the things that helped my students and helps my kids is an "alone corner", a soft, squishy spot where they can have a meltdown and not get hurt or bothered. This might not be a good solution for the long-term, but it may minimize injury until you can get some professional insight.

Have you considered using sign language? Talking can be difficult for toddlers, and a lot of frustration can stem from not being able to express themselves. "Angry" might be a good word to use: palms up, parallel to the floor, "grab" the air a few inches from your face and drag it down. Ask him if he feels angry and make the sign. If he gets the hang of it, you might be able to get him to express himself better while redirecting his focus.

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Thank you for the alone corner idea. We do need a better place for timeouts, and this sounds like a better solution. His vocabulary is actually very good (several hundred words, uses sentences to request things). I do like the idea of questioning him about his emotions rather than putting words in his mouth ("I realize you're angry" doesn't help much). – Steve Jackson Oct 29 '11 at 20:18

My son also used to bang his head on the floor to make a point. And he's got a clever head! It's not nice. We used to discipline him for banging his head (e.g. telling off, naughty-step, etc) because we considered it a very serious reaction that we must stop before he caused damage! It's quite important he doesn't get too much attention for banging his head (which is our natural reaction!) as this could encourage the behaviour.

It is important your child gets to show their emotions and feelings, but we also must teach them to think and communicate too. He will find a different way of expressing himself - just be sure to help him do it constructively!

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