Watching your toddler intentionally bang her head against the floor, walls, or crib can be alarming—is it a sign that she's deeply troubled? No, in most cases, it's simply a sign that she's a tot trying to express her feelings. We asked three parenting experts for their advice on helping little ones navigate big feelings, so that head-banging—like most other ways young children act out—is nothing more than a (quickly) passing phase.
Carrie Brown, MD, mom of two boys, and a pediatrician who treats medically complex children at Arkansas Children's Hospital, in Little Rock
"My oldest son banged his head from about 10 months until 12 months every time he was mad about something. I finally thought to ask the daycare provider if he was doing the behavior there as well. He was, and she told me she picked him up every time he started to throw himself backwards, as she did not want him to get hurt. Once I convinced her to let him work it out on his own without intervening or giving him what he wanted, the behavior stopped within days.
As a parent, the best thing you can do to keep [head-banging] from continuing is to allow the child to fall back and actually bang his head if he is in a location in which it is safe to do so (carpeted floor, no sharp objects around). Sometimes, understanding that 'it hurts when I do that, and I am not getting my way when I act like this,' can be a valuable lesson for a toddler. If you need to move your child to a safer location, do not comfort him while doing so. You don't want to reinforce the behavior."
Terrie Rose, PhD, licensed child psychologist, national speaker and social entrepreneur
"If, in response to feelings of anger or frustration, your toddler bangs his head, help him identify the big feelings. Recognize his experience: "I know you are mad." Reassure him that you can help: "I am right here." And, offer an alternative: "You can say, 'I'm mad.'"
A toddler lives in the moment, but sometimes adults do not. When the tantrum is over, it is helpful for both child and parent to acknowledge that it finished: "All done mad. Let's go play." With consistency, this, too, shall pass. If it doesn't or if you're still worried, please contact your medical provider."
Carrie Contey, PhD, parenting expert, speaker and co-founder of the Slow Family Living movement
First and foremost, try to stay calm. Yes, the behavior is evocative, but getting upset is not going to help the child. Take a breath and remember that this will pass. And the calmer you remain, the quicker it will pass. Next, if the child is in physical danger, get him or her to safety. Put a pillow under the child's head or pick up the child's body and move him or her into a safe space. Again, try to be calm when you are doing this. Finally, allow for the meltdown. Once a meltdown is underway it's unavoidable. And it's necessary. It's a way for their little system to discharge overwhelm and frustration. As much as you may not want to hear this, meltdowns are necessary. Expressing big feelings is important for healthy development.
Your job as a parent is not to stop the meltdown. It's to keep your child safe and to help him or her through big emotional upsets by being empathetic and supportive. And, after the meltdown blows over, you can talk to the child about what her or she can do differently when they are feeling that way. For example, 'Sweetheart, when we get upset, let's hit pillows! That's a much safer way to express our upset.' Then, run over to the couch and hit pillows; make it a game that you play often so your child knows what he or she can do when she is flooded with big feelings."