|Subject: 2-year-old starts head-banging during
Our 2 year old son just started head banging when
having a temper tantrum ... sometimes he will hit it so hard it hurts
and then he comes running to make it "all better". The temper
tantrums usually start when it is time to stop one activity due to
dinner or bedtime. I read the letter about temper tantrums and will
employ that method. What I am worried about is he is hurting himself ...
I thought after it hurt once he would not do it again but he seems to be
hitting harder sometimes. We are both very concerned with this behavior.
Katie and Rick
Thank you for writing and for seeking help with
this worrisome problem.
Head-banging, as I'm sure you know, is a young
child's way of expressing frustration and anger. Here are some
suggestions for minimizing his frustration in the situations you
(1) Be sure that he has some warning - such as
five minutes - that his activity will need to come to an end. A
two-year-old hard at play is in reality hard at work, and we all
know how difficult it can be to make a sudden shift from something we've
been concentrating on. If you can establish a new way of notifying him
that he will need to stop his activity in a few minutes - perhaps by
using a kitchen timer - that should be helpful. He will then feel that
you recognize the value of his activity and are demonstrating respect
for what is after all his job.
If you're comfortable with it, you might simply
let him choose the timing: "When you're finished with what you're
doing, come to the table." Then if everyone else starts dinner, he
may very well decide to join by himself. He will feel that he has some
say in the matter, which might make all the difference.
(2) Give some thought as to whether the new
activity proposed is unappealing to him for any reason. If he always
protests about dinner, for example, is it possible that he's just not
hungry yet? Perhaps a rescheduling of meal times might prevent the
difficulty. Have there been disturbing discussions at dinner lately that
might be postponed to a more suitable time? It's always best to prevent
tantrums, of course, than to have to figure out how to handle them.
(3) Before asking for him to stop an activity that
he's absorbed in, be sure that it's important enough to warrant this
interruption. In our society, we're led to think that the child should
make sacrifices to meet the parents' needs. It would be more fair and
avoid excessive frustration to interrupt him only when really necessary.
Ask yourself each time whether the interruption is really necessary. If
he's really not hungry, is it worth the effort to have him sit with you
(4) If you think he's feeling overcontrolled,
consider giving him a choice. Would he prefer to play or join you at the
table? Perhaps if you gave him a choice, he might choose to continue
playing the first few times, but once he understands that he has some
control over the situation, he might willingly join you at dinner.
(5) When you must interrupt his activity, try to
be as gentle, unrushed, and as close physically as you can be. If you're
right there with him, you can physically protect him from hitting his
head on anything dangerous. Instead of calling to him from a distance
and expecting him to stop right then and come to you (if this is what is
happening), go to him once the timer rings, and kneel down to his level.
Give him full eye contact and quietly let him know that it's time to
shift activities. Expressions of empathy will be important too:
"You're really having fun with that puzzle. Now it's time for
dinner." If he protests, pick him up as gently as possible and
carry him, while validating his feelings.
(6) You might also try a substitution of activity,
so that instead of simply having the frustration of ending one activity,
he is invited to start another one that he enjoys. When my son was
little, he would get fully absorbed in his activities, especially at a
playground. Because he also liked to run races, I would give him a few
minutes notice, and then invite him to race with me to the car. To help
your child to move on to dinnertime, perhaps you could have a favorite
toy waiting for him at the table.
The most important thing is to show respect -
respect for him as a whole person despite his size, and respect for his
play (his work). A toddler who is busily exploring the world around him
is truly involved in scientific investigation. It might be helpful,
then, to consider how you would handle things if you had a visiting
scientist over for dinner, and he was absorbed in his work when the meal
was ready. I think any of us in that situation would be respectful,
patient, understanding, and pleasant. Our children deserve nothing less.