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18 month old toddler tantrums with hitting & head banging

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.


How to get your toddler to stop hitting (3 basic steps)

Ok, here’s how we addressed it. Feel free to do what you think is best because you know your child better than anyone!

Stay calm when your toddler hits you

Wait for their reaction. It might be tears, a full on tantrum, or they might try to squirm free to do it again.

They might be embarrassed or mad. Or they may just stare at you to see what you’re going to do.

Try to stay calm (hard, I know!) and just tell them what you expect in a plain tone. Don’t shame them, or give them a huge lecture.

But don’t let them keep doing it.

You also need to honestly assess your tone and reaction when your toddler tries to hit, bite, or punch.

Because if we are honest, toddlers can make our blood boil at times, and we are not always calm and in control of our own emotions as moms.

There’s a book for you called “Triggers” that will seriously help you identify what sends you over the edge and how to gain control of what triggers your anger!

If you are out of control, “ragey”, or scare them with your threatening voice…how can you expect them to different?

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.

How are head injuries in children diagnosed?

Your pediatrician will examine your child and ask you how her head injury happened, as well as inquire about any medical issues your toddler has or any meds she takes.

Based on the checkup, your little one may need to go to the ER to have a CT scan (a three-dimensional X-ray image taken by a computer) of her brain to look for signs of swelling, bleeding or fracture. The CT scan may only take about 10 minutes, but don’t be surprised if you have to wait a couple of hours for the results (there are plenty of ways to keep your toddler entertained in the ER waiting room if she’s up to it).

If the test comes back normal and the doctor sees that your toddler seems stable (she’s eating snacks and looking at the books you stashed in your bag), you’ll both be sent home.

Even with a normal CT scan, your doctor may tell you that your little one had a concussion (these microscopic brain injuries won’t show up on the scan), which means her brain was shaken around in her skull — one reason why she may seem confused or is having trouble paying attention. 

If the CT scan comes back with abnormalities (like torn blood vessels or a skull fracture), your child may need hospitalization and/or surgery. 

Is headbanging always a sign of autism?

You can breathe a sigh of relief here. Just because your toddler is hitting himself in the head doesn’t mean it’s autism. The signs of autism in toddlers usually start well before this, and while repetitive behaviors are one of them, that’s not enough to make a diagnosis.

You will likely see that this is just a phase, like all the others, that your toddler is going through. When your toddler becomes more adept at communicating, soothing themselves, or getting the attention they desire, they will stop hitting themselves.

So, don’t worry that your child is autistic if they are developing as expected in all the other areas. But if your child hits themselves regularly, can’t make eye contact, doesn’t want to interact with others, has delayed motor skills or delayed speech, you will want to make an appointment with your doctor to get to the bottom of things.

How can you tell if a baby has autism?

Recognizing signs of autism

May not keep eye contact or makes little or no eye contact. Shows no or less response to a parent’s smile or other facial expressions. May not look at objects or events a parent is looking at or pointing to. May not point to objects or events to get a parent to look at them.

What is a head injury in children?

A head injury in children (and everyone else) is any impact or trauma to the outer surface of the head or face (like the forehead), the blood vessels, the scalp, the skull or even, rarely, the brain.

Many head injuries in toddlers are mild, like a bruise or bump on the head, or an open wound in the form of a scrape or cut. More serious and less common toddler head injuries might include a concussion, a fractured skull bone, swelling or even internal bleeding.

There are several different types of head injuries, including:

  • Contusion. A contusion, which is a bruise, happens when small blood vessels are damaged by the impact of the injury, but it doesn’t puncture the skin. These tiny vessels fracture and leak a bit of blood, which stays trapped under the skin. The result? A classic purple, red or blue bruise mark that can be swollen and painful to the touch until it heals. These bruises on the head aren’t usually anything to worry about and often happen on the forehead or scalp. A very serious head injury, however, can cause deeper bruising to the brain, or a brain contusion.
  • Scalp wound. This is a cut or break in the skin on the scalp. Depending on the injury, the wound may be superficial, deep or gaping.
  • Concussion. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurs when a hit to the head (or an excessively forceful hit to the body) causes the brain to move rapidly back and forth. The sudden movement of the brain can in serious cases cause chemical changes and can damage some of the brain cells.
  • Skull fracture. A skull fracture happens after a severe impact or blow that causes a bone in the skull to break. There are several types of skull fractures and a break can occur in different parts of the skull. A skull fracture may be accompanied by a concussion, bleeding or other injury to the brain.
  • Bleeding. Bleeding can occur on or under the scalp, in the brain tissue, or in the layers that surround the brain.

A Word From Verywell

Usually, when toddlers hit themselves or bang their heads, it is nothing to worry about. However, it never hurts to observe when the behavior is happening and how frequently.

Then, talk to your pediatrician about what you are seeing. In the meantime, just focus on trying to keep the hitting to a minimum and helping your child find other ways to communicate frustration.