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What Your Toddler’s Head Banging Really Means

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.
  • Does Head Banging Require Treatment?

    Most children will grow out of this behavior on their own, as they are eventually able to replace the need for head banging with appropriate modes of reactions to their moods, desires, and the environment.

    If My Child is Head Banging, What Should I Do?

    Intervention in the form of a psychological evaluation is necessary only when linked with attention seeking, or if the cause of head banging remains unknown after eliminating all other possible reasons. If autism is suspected, a prompt medical examination might also be warranted. Otherwise, parents or caregivers should respond to head banging by following these tips from Dr. Sherman:

    • Reward Appropriate Behavior: An increase in attention for non-head banging behavior should be given, when a child does so for attention. He or she will then learn that attention is only received for every “good” action.
  • Ignore It: When escaping from following through with a parental request by head banging, treatment involves not allowing the child to get out of what was asked of him or her. Ignore the head banging and require the child to follow-through with the request.
  • Refrain from Overreacting: Try to stay calm and be consistent with your reactions to your child’s head banging. Nothing should be spoken to or given to a child who continues to bang his head. The child should be transferred to a carpeted or safer area if necessary. Parents may have to eventually leave the room. Most likely, the head banging will temporarily increase, followed by a rapid decline.
  • Offer Age-Appropriate (or Special-Needs Toys): Be sure that your child has toys that fit her level of development and be sure you are allowing enough time and space for self-expression and discovery. For under- or over-stimulated children, creative outlets that heighten their senses and occupy their time constructively will replace the need to resort to head banging. Parents may purchase educational and developmental toys for their child’s age range, removing outgrown toys.
    • Foster Good Health and Positive Self Esteem: Children in need of better health practices must be shown the importance of regular healthy routines—exercise, self-grooming, healthy eating, among others. A regular schedule for having such needs met will reinforce this. Children who suffer from low self esteem need love, support, and encouragement to be independent and sociable.
    • Maintain open communication: Make sure your child knows he or she can come to you to discuss anything. And take an active part in learning about your child’s throughts, feelings, and experiences by actively pursuing conversation.
    • Post a Chore Chart: Keep a chart on a bulletin board on the refrigerator, a wall, or door, for letting children know when they should complete various daily tasks and activities.
    • Find Opportunities to Spend Time Together: Share meals, read together, or even take turns brushing each others’ hair.
    • Allow for Ample Playtime: Make sure it is spent both alone as well as with peers. A child who is given the opportunity to learn how to amuse herself and interact with others remains more confident and less likely to have a poor self-image.
    • Provide a Soothing Bedtime Routine: Warm baths, calming music, or a story before bedtime can ease children into slumber. Keep bedtime consistent, so that children will be able to prepare for, understand, and accept when bedtime is near. Refrain from physical activity at least three hours before bedtime to avoid over-stimulation. Any fears or anxieties a child may have at actually falling asleep also need to be addressed.
    • Eat Earlier: Using an earlier dinnertime will allow a child some time to let out any bursts of activity before having to prepare for bed.
    • Create a Comfortable Sleeping Environment: Make sure your child’s room is free of noise and balanced with enough heat or air.
    • Dispell Fear: Install a nightlight, if necessary.
  • Understand That This Is Temporary: Most children outgrow head banging by age four or when the need to do so is replaced by other ways to express or soothe themselves.
  • While it might look like children are in danger of harm while head banging, Dr. Sherman assures: “Most healthy children do not head bang in order to injure themselves. Pain prevents them from banging too hard and even if it didn’t, children under three do not generate enough force to cause brain damage or neurological problems.”
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