Why Does My Toddler Hit Himself?

There are several reasons why toddlers may hurt themselves on purpose

Sometimes toddlers hit themselves out of frustration.

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It’s always hard to see your toddler upset, but it’s even worse when he’s so frustrated or angry that he starts hitting himself. This isn’t a common occurrence in children—usually, a toddler will hit someone else when he’s angry rather than hurt himself—which can make it scary for you to see.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s a habit to be overly concerned about. Pay close attention to when it’s happening and how the situation plays out to determine if you need to seek guidance from the pediatrician.

As your child grows up, he will probably stop this self-harming behavior. Keep an eye out for the habit to return, though.

A KidsHealth poll asked older children about their stressors and what they do when they’re upset. Approximately 25 percent responded that when they are upset, they take it out on themselves through hitting, biting, or banging their heads on something.

Why Does Your Toddler Hit Himself?

As your child grows from an infant into a toddler, he will start exploring his surroundings and communicating his wants and needs. However, his capabilities won’t quite match his desire to do both of those things.

His inability to verbalize his wants or needs and his struggle to navigate his environment successfully can be a recipe for a temper tantrum. If his frustration is especially high, he may hit himself as a way to express his frustration.

If you notice this happening, take note of any triggers that led to the tantrum. Perhaps you said no to something he really wants to do. Or maybe, he’s simply over-tired or hungry.

If you recognize a pattern or trigger that leads to your toddler hitting himself, you may be able to prevent problems before they start. When you see the situation about to occur, intervene before the fists start flying.

How to Deal With Self-Harm During a Tantrum

If you are unable to prevent your child from hitting herself, there are effective ways you can handle the temper tantrum. Here are several things you might try doing to keep your child safe:

  • Create a safe environment for your child. If your child finds multiple ways to hurt herself—such as banging her head against the wall—move her or the objects out of reach.
  • Provide physical assistance. Take your child into your arms and prevent him from hitting himself by blocking his arms. This comfort might be enough to calm your toddler down and stop him from self-injury. This creates a safe, loving environment for your child to soften the pain or frustration that he’s feeling.
  • Speak in soothing words. Tell your child that she’s safe and you’re there to comfort her. You can give her something else to hold, too, such as a teddy bear to squeeze or a sippy cup full of water to drink.

You might be tempted to try to reason with your toddler or lecture him for this behavior, but now’s not the time. It’s more important to calm the child and make sure he’s not being harmed.

Once the moment has passed, then you can start to work on teaching your toddler healthy ways to express his frustration. You might start by teaching him how to identify and verbalize his feelings by saying, “I can see that you’re feeling really mad.”

When he knows you recognize his frustration or anger, he may be less likely to show you how upset he is with hitting himself. Teaching feeling words also sets the stage so your child can begin learning healthy anger management skills throughout his preschool years.

Your Toddler May Be in Pain

If your toddler starts suddenly hitting himself, he may be in physical pain. A toddler who hits himself on the side of the head may have an ear infection.

Babies who are teething may also hit themselves at times to cope with the pain in their gums. Hitting may be self-soothing.

Be on the lookout for signs your child may be in pain. Pay attention to where he’s hitting himself. He may be trying to communicate where it hurts.

Depending on the source of the pain, you may be able to treat your child at home. If you are uncertain what is causing the pain, however, a trip to the pediatrician may be in order.

When to Be Concerned

If a child is hitting himself on a regular basis and it’s not connected to a temper tantrum or acute pain, this habit can be a concern.

Self-injury may be associated with autism. In addition to hitting themselves, children with autism may scratch, pinch, or bite themselves or bang their heads.

Children with developmental disabilities may find self-injury to be self-soothing. Rhythmic head-banging, for example, provides vestibular stimulation.

It should also be a cause for concern if your child is causing physical damage to himself. If he’s hitting himself so hard he’s leaving bruises or marks or he’s causing other injuries to himself, see a pediatrician.

If your toddler is a little bit older, the extreme frustration in not being able to express himself might be a result of a speech delay. Therefore, the pediatrician may want to provide a referral to a speech therapist for an evaluation.

If you think that the behavior is a symptom of a larger issue, write down when you notice it occurring and bring it to your child’s doctor to ask for advice. The physician might recommend additional screening to determine what’s going on.

When in doubt, it’s best to get your toddler evaluated by the pediatrician to rule out any potential medical conditions or developmental delays. Talking to a physician about your child's behavior may give you peace of mind, strategies to use when your toddler hits himself, or a referral to a specialist for further evaluation and treatment.

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