Many parents have gone through this situation, and maybe you have, too. You tell your young child that it’s time to stop playing a game, with their toy or their electronic device and get ready for bed. They’re upset, which sometimes looks like them yelling, screaming and even sometimes throwing things. But, now you notice a new behavior - they are hitting themselves in the legs or banging their head against the wall.
You’re bewildered. It’s confusing, and it can even be frightening. Why is your child hitting themselves? And is this normal behavior, or do you need to be concerned?
Why does my child hit themselves when angry?
It can be really alarming and confusing when you see your child start hitting, biting, or scratching themselves. For many of the parents I work with, their first question is, “Why would they do something like that to themselves?!”
For many kids, hitting themselves is a way of self-expression. Basically, it’s similar to a temper tantrum. Your child may not have gotten something they wanted, or they might feel angry or frustrated for another reason. When this feeling becomes overwhelming, they need to express it somehow.
For young children in particular, they often don’t have the vocabulary or skills to express strong emotions with words. Hitting themselves, or throwing things, might be a way of letting you know, “Hey! I’m struggling and I need you to know it!”
They also probably get your undivided attention when they hit themselves - known as a secondary gain. This gain, inadvertently, might teach them that when they hit themselves they will get your undivided attention - even if it is negative.
Other kids might hit themselves for sensory stimulation. Some kids need more sensory input than others – these are the kids who seek stimulation in all ways, like listening to music really loud or testing their own limits with pain. Sensory cravings are sometimes linked to diagnosis like ADHD or autism, but not all the time. It could just be soothing to them.
If you’re concerned about your child hitting themselves, or if the behavior is getting worse, then a good place to start is by talking with their pediatrician about what you are noticing.
How do I stop my child from hitting themselves?
Although this behavior can be common, it’s natural that as a parent you want to stop it. It can be frightening when your child starts to hurt themselves, and you may be worried that it can become unsafe. Here are some things to keep in mind to try to curb these behaviors when you see them.
1). Keep them safe
Safety should always come first. If your child is hitting themselves enough to actually cause damage, then safety is the first thing that needs to be addressed. Clear the space around them so that it minimizes who or what they can hit.
If they are using their own body to inflict hurt, gently and firmly try to physically restrain them. Try holding whatever part of their body they are using - typically it is hands and legs - so that they can no longer hurt themselves. Some children also respond just by having their loved one kneeling or sitting near them and speaking to them reassuringly.
2). Speak to them calmly
A common mistake I see some parents make, including myself, is to yell at the child when they are hurting themselves. This is understandable because it is usually coming from a place of fear or frustration. It is also how many of us were taught to react. Yelling, however, might only worsen the situation.
Instead, speak to your child in a soft, yet firm voice. Tell them that they will hurt themselves if they continue this behavior, and that you love them and don’t want to see them get hurt.
You can say something like, “I love you, and I’m not going to let you hurt yourself. I’m here to keep you safe.” Keep in mind that some kids (especially younger toddlers) simply don’t know that they could get hurt by hitting themselves.
3). Stay with your child
Don’t let your child go through these big moments on their own. Having big, powerful, and painful emotions like this is hard enough for adults – it’s even harder for kids. Your child needs you to stick around to learn how to regulate themselves and to know that they are still worthy of your presence.
While it may be overwhelming and tempting to give them some space, resist the urge to walk away. If your child is old enough, talk to them about how they’re feeling and help them use their words to express themselves.
4). Reflect and validate
Remember that your child is probably hitting themselves and acting out in this way because they’re having some big, overwhelming emotions. Try your best to reflect these emotions back to them. Be validating, instead of dismissive.
For example, don’t say, “What the h*ck are you doing?! Stop doing that!!.” Instead, you can try, “Looks like you’re frustrated and angry right now. It’s okay to feel angry but it’s not okay to hurt yourself. I am going to help you if you can’t stop on your own.”
It’s also important to reflect on whether this is a learned behavior. In other words, in some cultures/households hitting is what is done when someone has done something wrong. It is important to consider whether your child may be “copying” what they see before jumping to the conclusion that something is wrong with your child.
5). Join my online parent support group
Lastly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with your child having such tantrums (or any other aspect of parenting), consider joining my online parent group- a supportive place where you can learn how to get the support you need. We also talk about how to parent our kids in ways that are different from how we were raised, and work on increasing self-compassion.
Reach out to me to get on the waitlist!
Thank you for reading. I’ll see you next month!
Christine M. Valentín
Welcome to my blog where I provide tips and guidance related to common struggles children and parents experience. Sign up below to receive such guidance directly in your inbox!