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Every few days, my little guy won't get his way on something trivial and decides to throw a fit. He lets out a piercing scream, drops flat, then deliberately smashes his forehead on the floor as hard as he can two or three times. It's absolutely purposeful.

He'll do it on concrete. He raises giant lumps and is then so overwrought that I have to put him in his bed and make sure he stays there so he doesn't hurt himself. He doesn't want attention and hits and screams at anyone who comes near.

If I leave him alone on his bed he'll bash his face against the wall. The one time I stepped away and closed the door there was a THUNK and he'd smashed his nose. Blood everywhere.

This has been going on for months now. Most times I see the body language and can keep him from hurting himself. Sometimes I can't quite get there and BANG another lump.

He's a well adjusted and happy little guy 99% of the time. The most common trigger seems to be his older brother taking a toy away. I'm just at a loss about how to deal with the self-harming behavior.

I'm a single Dad. He has one-on-one time with his nanny while his older brother is in Kindergarten. She reports the same behavior.

I tried ignoring it hoping that he'd learn that hurting himself did nothing. That just resulted in more forehead lumps.

How should I approach the problem?

  • Have you ever given in and given him what he wanted after one of these episodes, even once? If so, maybe he thinks it works. – acpilot Oct 26 '16 at 18:35
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    Nope. I'm pretty big on bad behavior not getting the desired result. – Gabriel Oct 27 '16 at 0:22
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    I'll add my entirely anecdotal experience: I used to do this when I was a toddler. My parents thought it was to spite them. In reality, I was subject to violent migraines, that could easily get triggered by strong emotions. The pain was so bad that hitting my head would temporarily relieve it, even for a few seconds. I had no idea such pains were abnormal, so I didn't see a neurologist until mid-twenty, but proper medication changed my life. – b0fh Jul 22 at 9:20
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Every few days, my little guy won't get his way on something trivial and decides to throw a fit. He lets out a piercing scream, drops flat, then deliberately smashes his forehead on the floor as hard as he can two or three times. It's absolutely purposeful.

Throwing a fit when something does not go right is perfectly normal at that age. Typically, children at that age start developing their own will and their own opinion of how things should be, and thus try to influence the world around them to their liking. Sometimes this does not work, and the resulting frustration still need to learn how to deal with.

However:

While throwing fits is normal, actually seriously harming themselves is not. If your son does this repeatedly and on purpose, as you write, I believe he needs professional help.

I don't think there is much you can do if your child is purposely hurting himself. You write that you try to anticipate, which is good, but you cannot always be there in time.

Please consider taking him to some kind of counseling, psychologist, or similar to discuss these problems. There may be some underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

Of course, may be there is no such problem, and your son is just a bit more temperamental than usual. Then the counseling still will not hurt, and you may get a few more tips on how to best handle this behavior.

Raising a child can be hard, particularly as a single parent, so make use of all the help you can get! Best of luck!

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    I think "professional help" is a good one here. Most toddlers will learn after doing this a few times that it hurts and doesn't work, and stop the behavior. If it keeps happening, something is off. – Erik Oct 26 '16 at 13:10
  • Thanks for your comments. I will be looking for some counselling resources. – Gabriel Oct 27 '16 at 0:20
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    @Gabriel - Could be helpful to start with the child's primary care doctor. – aparente001 Oct 27 '16 at 1:12
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Warning: this is definitely to take as anecdotical evidence and not a as a recommendation to replicate...

Dear lord, this brings back a lot of memories...

Not that I would recommend this, but... my son used to really throw his head back from barely 4 months old onwards or even to throw himself on his back when he was between 1 and 2yo, when we denied him something he wanted.

This got pretty scary at times, as he would do this at first in our arms and almost bang his head on things. I still have shivers thinking from a time he did this while walking on a sea shore and we were close to nice, sharp stones... I managed to block that one with my hand and it hurt pretty bad for me!

Later he'd throw himself on his back, back of the head first, on any kind of floors. We had lots of "near misses", but usually it happened on carpet floors, or wooden floors, or we caught him half-way, or he had a hat... We had gotten into the habit of making sure there was something behind him just in case.

Until when one day when it was not a "near-miss" but a "full-on hit", as we hadn't seen it coming. This time it was a nice old tile floor while visiting relatives. He threw himself back - can't remember the reason now, actually - and there was a loud bang.

Thankfully he wasn't really hurt, but it apparently reeeaaalllly surprised him that it sounded so loud and hurt so bad.

He never did it a single time again.

True story. :)

But again, I wouldn't recommend to try it in the hope it would have the same effect on yours. Mind you, yours reached blood already. That's a fighter you got there...

Anyways, at 3 year old, he's old enough for you to explain to him why it's bad (though not old enough to understand why and how it's dangerous). I'd try to explain that to him.

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You say it's been going in a couple months? My 2 year old is beginning to do the same thing. Here are some things I've managed to get to work to if not stop it entirely, prevent the self inflicted pain on a per tantrum basis.

While I don't have all the answers. Here are somethings that have helped.

1) Get ahead of it and get a stuffed animal, a ball, or pillow into those little hands. My LO when I can do this usually turns their focus onto the pillow or stuffed animal. My LO ends up hitting, punching, biting or screaming into the pillow instead of against the floor or walls. Even to the point of throwing the animal, throw themselves on top of the animal, only to pick it up and throw it and repeat all the while screaming...till a few minutes later the screaming stops and something else has caught the little one's attention.

If that isn't working.

2) Ignore the hitting and such and just hold em with a pillow is all I can do. My LO ends up hitting, punching, biting or screaming into the pillow instead of against the floor or walls. If it's this bad, it has gone on for a longer, and being held sorta aggravates the situation a little bit. But in the end, I get a little one, tuckered out in my arms that I can talk to soothingly and at least get pointing or grunts as to what caused it in the first place.

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  1. If he's doing this much self-harm, you need to put him in a soft helmet (sold for special needs) right away. When things improve you can transition out of it. For the couple of days it takes for you to get hold of a soft helmet, please avoid being in places with the hardest surfaces like concrete, and set up some temporary padding (cardboard? extra crib mattress? foam padding from the fabric store?) in key places, e.g. his bed.

  2. Discuss situation with his doctor.

  3. Teach older brother to offer another toy and wait until toddler drops the desired toy before taking it.

  4. Provide extra close supervision at high likelihood times.

  5. Look for other triggers so you can apply #4 and find more solutions like #3.

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    When there's a downvote, it is helpful to get feedback, especially for a six-part answer. – aparente001 Oct 27 '16 at 1:11
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    The soft-helmet is actually interesting for another angle... it may annoy him enough to get him to understand that if he wants to get out of it, he has to stop doing that. – haylem Oct 27 '16 at 23:01

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