A little one's habit of head banging is often unsettling for parents. A common rhythmic act in which a child hits his head against a crib slat or wall, head banging is seen in children as young as age one and is three to four times more likely to occur in boys than girls. Statistics from the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry show that up to 20 percent of healthy children are head bangers for a time. So, what causes this behavior, and should you be worried if your child begins to exhibit it?
What Causes Head Banging?
"There are many theories to explain the behavior," says Dr. Colleen Sherman, PhD, Pediatric Psychologist for the Nemours/Alfred I duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. Head banging is seen as more of a behavioral issue rather than medically-based, and may occur for numerous reasons:
- Stimulatory Reasons: Children who are deaf, blind, bored, or lonely are likely to bang their heads due to under-stimulation. Conversely, children who are over-stimulated or overwhelmed by their environments may bang their heads as a self-soothing technique.
- Nightly Ritual: In some children, the rhythmic motion of head banging releases tension and helps them prepare for sleep. This is often accompanied by rocking.
- Psychological or Medical Factors: Occasionally, psychological factors such as frustration or the desire to harm oneself are expressed through head banging. Such feelings usually stem from low self-esteem, depression, helplessness, or poor health. While autistic children also exhibit head banging, the presence of the behavior is not a cause for immediate panic, unless frequent, violent episodes emerge (in addition to noting the child's lack of interest in his or her environment). The need for head banging in autistic children is a frantic attempt to block out the loud sounds they frequently hear in their heads, rather than an involuntary lapse of muscle control or spasm, or harm to self.
- Attention-Seeking: Head banging is a surefire way to gain attention from parents or other caregivers—and the more attention that is given to a child who head bangs, the more he or she is likely to continue the behavior. "The most common head banging that we see in the behavioral health clinic is the youngster who head bangs out of frustration or anger, as part of a temper tantrum," explains Dr. Sherman.