Head-banging in toddlers is more common than you think – here’s how to respond

Posted in Behaviour and Discipline.

When Hayley’s three-year-old son started banging his head out of frustration, naturally she was worried. The distressed mum asked Feed Play Love’s mothercraft nurse Chris Minogue for advice – here’s what she had to say.

“What do I do?”

“My son is three and he head-bangs in frustration and scratches behind his ears when he’s not getting what he wants,” Hayley explained to Chris.

“I’m at my wits’ end for what to do. I’ve tried saying no, I’ve tried time out. I’m just so frustrated because I hate seeing him hurt himself. I’ve tried distraction also. What do I do?”

Listen to Chris on Feed Play Love:

Physically frustrated

Chris says that it sounds like Hayley’s son is physically frustrated and taking it out on himself, something that is obviously really tough for both Hayley and her son.

“So, to me, it looks like frustration, because it only happens when something’s not happening for him. What you have to do is pre-empt that, which takes a lot of conscious thought,” says Chris.

“There are two things you can do,” she adds. The first is to try and distract him when you say no.

“Say he wants a biscuit and you’re about to say, ‘No, it’s dinner time’. You know that he’s going to fall into that pattern of head-banging or scratching. Knowing that you’re about to say no about the biscuits, I’d try to distract him with something else. So I might say something like, ‘Well, we’re not going to have a biscuit now but can you come and help me build a Lego tower’ and distract him out of that behaviour,” suggests Chris. 

Social setting

The second thing to do is see if he displays the same behaviour in a social setting, like daycare, or if the action only occurs at home.

“So if he did the same behaviour in the social setting, I might want to go and talk to someone with a bit more professional knowledge around this type of behaviour, like a developmental paediatrician or a child psychologist,” says Chris.

“But I suspect it’s just re-teaching him and distracting him out of that behaviour that will fix it.”

Head-banging is more common than you think

In their book, Now say this: The right words to solve every parenting dilemma, Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright say that head-banging is more common than parents think – but doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

“The evidence shows that kids will not injure themselves seriously and will learn fairly quickly that it doesn’t feel good to bang their heads on the ground or another hard surface,” they write.

“If we rush to try to stop them, the phase will likely last longer because they are not getting the input they need to learn to stop doing it.”

Although this is a tough behaviour to ignore, they say it’s essential not to let him know how upsetting it is. Instead, they suggest moving him, if he’s on a hard surface or in a public place, and letting him know you’re close by if he needs you.

That said, if you are really worried about your child’s head-banging, talk to your GP.


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