How to Handle… a Head Banger
Three takes on managing a toddler in the midst of a meltdown
Watching your toddler intentionally bang her head against the floor, walls, or crib can be alarming—and you might wonder if it’s a sign that she’s deeply troubled. 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.
Terrie Rose, PhD, licensed child psychologist, national speaker, and social entrepreneur
“Toddlers have small vocabularies and big feelings. Tantrums often become the default setting. Because they have such limited resources for understanding their feelings—let alone for managing them—waves of frustration flood their bodies. Sometimes, the only option is to open the floodgates, bang their heads on the floor, or collapse in your lap.
“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.’”
Carrie Brown, MD, a pediatrician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, in Little Rock, and a mom of two boys
“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 these events 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.”
Carrie Contey, PhD, parenting expert, speaker and co-founder of the Slow Family Living movement
“The truth is, this behavior is quite normal.
“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.”
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