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18 Month old toddler tantrums with hitting & head banging

Dr. Laura,

We are having a problem with our 18 month old son hitting his head when he is frustrated or can't have what he wants. He will head butt us (or just hit us) if we tell him no, and he will hit his head, really hard, on anything around him, including hard surfaces like the floor or tables etc. I try to not react to tantrums like this, but I'm worried about him hurting himself. He has already given himself several nasty bruises and a cut lip. With regular hitting we always hold his hands, tell him no very firmly, and if he continues, he goes to time out. We have been doing this for about 2 months, but the hitting is not letting up.

I would love some advice! Thanks, Karen

Dear Karen,
I can see why you're worried about your son's hurting himself.   Your son is still very little. He doesn’t have the verbal capacity to express himself very well. He has big feelings and wants whatever he wants at that moment with great passion. It will take him years to learn to manage his emotions; right now they overwhelm him and he can’t help himself: he explodes with frustration, hitting and tantrumming. We all know what that feels like – in fact, most of us have had the experience of bursting out yelling even as adults!

I wonder what you mean when you say that you “try not to react to his tantrums." You certainly don’t want to give him whatever he wanted that caused the tantrum -- meaning the candy he is demanding, for instance.  That teaches him that tantrums are the way to get what he wants. But the idea that parents should ignore tantrums is a myth. Research has shown that strategy is misguided; it just causes the child to tantrum more frequently. If you think about it, this makes sense.  He's tantrumming because he has such big feelings and no other way to express them. If you ignore him, he is doubly frustrated because not only is he frustrated, now he has also lost his connection with you. If he felt that you understood what he was feeling, he might not need to act his feelings out so graphically.

Of course, he will sometimes need to resort to tantrums to blow off stress, and that is fine. Toddlers just need to cry sometimes. Tantrums are nature's way of letting off frustration. If you can stay close to him and reassure him, and comfort him afterwards, it will help him enormously. What he really needs at those times is your attention and love, which helps heal that hurting place inside him. (And no, it won’t make him tantrum more, as long as he is also getting plenty of your attention when he isn’t tantrumming. If a little one has to resort to tantrumming for attention, then he is clearly sending an SOS that he isn't getting enough attention!) You will be amazed at how much his behavior improves once he’s had a good cry with you as a compassionate witness.

So let’s get to your questions: what can you do to stop your son from hitting you, and to stop him from hurting himself when he tantrums?

Reducing or eliminating this behavior requires us to work on five fronts at once:
1. Give him more internal resources to handle frustration.
2. Reduce the amount of frustration he has to handle.
3. Help him develop EQ, or emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage his emotions.
4. Give him alternate means of expressing his frustration.
5. Teach him how to relate lovingly to other people.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

1. Give him more internal resources to bear more frustration.

You’ve probably noticed that his behavior is worse when he’s tired or hungry. Feeding him before he’s starving, and putting him to bed before he’s tired, are the most effective ways to avoid tantrums. But kids have another basic need that we often overlook: connection. When they don’t feel connected enough to us, they get stressed and can’t tap into their own internal strength. So if you see him getting a little cranky, offer a hug, or some cozy time on the couch with a book, to re-fuel him.

2. Reduce the amount of frustration and fear.

Toddlers find the world an exciting but frustrating place. Parents order them around. Towers fall down. Other kids take their toys. They can’t manage so many things they want to do themselves. As he becomes better able to express himself verbally he will be able to blow off steam by putting his feelings into words. But over the next six months or so, you can help him by reducing the things that frustrate him to a level he can manage more easily.

How? Give choices when you can, so he doesn't feel pushed around. (Don't overwhelm him with choices.  Just let him have the red cup or the blue shirt when he prefers.) Try to say yes rather than no whenever possible. When you do need to set limits, do it empathically so he has your help in dealing with his upset about the limit you’ve set.

That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, or that you stop setting limits. It means you acknowledge his feelings and offer empathy. “You wish you could have that candy. It’s almost dinner time, so no candy. You can have some carrots and we can snuggle on the couch and read your book. I see you’re too sad and mad to read right now, you want that candy so much you’re crying. I'm right here...you're safe... When you’re ready I’m here with a big hug.

Remember also that anger is always a response to disappointment, hurt or fear. Your little guy gets frightened by many things in the course of a day. The more you can recognize those incidents and empathize, the less he will need to act them out with tough guy attacks on you later in the day. Your morning might be peppered by comments like “Oh, you couldn’t find me? I was in the bathroom. I’m so sorry I scared you. You don’t have to worry. Mommy always comes back. Or “Wow, that barking dog is scary! Don’t worry, I will always keep you safe. Remember also that TV is full of scenes that scare little ones. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids younger than two years not watch any TV at all, partly for this reason.

3. Help him develop EQ, or emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage his emotions.

Parents lay the foundation of emotional intelligence by empathizing with their child’s feelings, as described above. Simply put his emotions into words so that he knows you understand. He may or may not be able to express himself in words yet, but he will certainly understand your words and tone. Not only does offering him empathy teach him a language that helps him learn to understand and manage his emotions, it also reduces his frustration: “You worked so hard on that tower, and then it fell down. That is so hard. Of course you're mad. Research has shown that many tantrums can be nipped in the bud by simply getting on the toddler’s level and saying emphatically “You are mad! Yes, I hear you!

We can also hasten the development of EQ by giving our child words and explanations as we move through daily life: “Henry is mad because he wants the ball." ... "The baby is so sad. Do you think she wants someone to hold her?"

4. Give him alternate means of expressing his frustration. Many moms find that when they stop their little one hitting them, he instead begins to head bang or hit himself. What he needs is an alternate way to let those feelings out.   Sometimes, kids simply need to cry.  When you allow those feelings, your child can just express them directly without needing to attack you or himself.  So tell him he's safe and you're right there and you're sorry it's so hard, and stay with him while he cries. 

Once kids are in meltdown mode, they can't listen to reason and you don't want to use a lot of words because it's more important they get those feelings out.  But when he’s feeling good, you can teach emotional intelligence by saying “Let’s make mad faces. Then you can show me when you’re mad. Or offer him a squeeze ball and tell him to fill it up with his mad feelings. Or teach him to take a “calming" breath when he’s frustrated (breathe in deeply through the nose, hold it a moment, and let it out very slowly through a small hole in your lips). Later, when he starts to lose to get upset, you can hand him the squeeze ball or say: “Wow, are you mad. Show me how mad you are with your mad face. The trick with all of these things is to teach him while he’s feeling good, then remind him before he loses it. You’ll be amazed when you see him try one of these techniques when he’s under stress.

5. Teach him how to relate lovingly and respectfully to other people.

Obviously, kids learn this lesson mostly from their interactions with us. If we are reliably loving and respectful with them, that becomes their mode of behavior. This is why hitting our kids when they hit backfires. It is also why timeouts, which rely on our greater size, won’t work with many kids, and stop working as soon the child is big enough to physically challenge us. As you can see, I am not a fan of time outs. They're infinitely better than hitting a child, but they set up power struggles.  They cause behavior like you are seeing with your son, where he gets angry and lashes out, hurting himself and others.

And if you have been doing timeouts for two months and he is still hitting, it doesn't sound like the timeout strategy is very effective in eliminating your son's hitting behavior.  I strongly advise you to stop using timeouts and begin using positive discipline techniques instead. Click here for more info on why timeouts don’t work.

So should you just let your child hit you? Absolutely not. That doesn’t teach him about loving relationships. In fact, it undermines your closeness to him.

Your child does not want to attack you. When he hits you he is crying out for connection. The best way to stop his hitting is to reconnect, which is why the most common recommendation to eliminate hitting is to get down on your son’s level so you make eye contact, and hold his hands while you say calmly “No hitting. Hitting hurts. We keep our hands on our own bodies. The key to this is to be very serious and really make contact with your child. If he is angry, say “You are very mad, but we don’t hit. Here, show me how mad you are with this pillow.

However, often this approach doesn’t work -- as it sounds like it is not working with your son -- because logic can’t heal the upset and disconnection that our child is feeling from us at that moment. Sometimes kids respond by laughing, or continue hitting because they are just too upset to connect. But his aggression will melt away if you can move close and take him lovingly in your arms, saying warmly “Hitting hurts Mommy. You must be very upset to hit me. I know you feel bad right now. I will keep things safe. You need a hug from your mom who loves you."

He may well go limp in your arms at that point and cry.  If so, that is exactly what he needed.  Remember that anger is a defense against hurt, sadness or fear.  If your son has been storing up those "yucky" feelings all day, the only safe way to express them is with the person he he feels safest with.  So he hits.  When you don't let him hit you but you also stay loving with him, the anger vanishes and the hurt, sadness and fear are released, which is what he needs.

What if he struggles? Don't let yourself get hurt.  Hold him so he can’t hit you, and say "Mommy will keep everyone safe. It's ok to cry. Mommy's right here. Mommy loves you."  Let him move into an expression of all those feelings he's built up that led to his hitting you, which means he will begin to cry. Again, he may well melt into your arms and just sob at this point, and your job is just to let him sob as long as he needs to, offering him a compassionate safe haven.

If he keeps struggling, or tells you to let him go, put him down on the rug and stay nearby. Don't let him hurt you, but keep him enveloped in your love, making occasional soothing comments so he knows you're there while he tantrums: “You are safe....I'm right here..... It’s okay, everybody needs to cry sometimes....You're doing hard work...whenever you are ready I will hold you."

If he yells "Go away!" then take a step back and say "I am moving back, away.  But I am right here if you need me.  I won't leave you alone with all these upset feelings."

Don’t lecture or try to reason with him while he’s showing you his big emotions. Just let him cry and struggle, which will let off all the tension he’s feeling, especially with your loving presence to help him feel safer.

Most parents find this challenging at first. It's hard to just be a compassionate witness for someone else's pain, particularly our child's. How to stay calm yourself? Use the same loving, nurturing tone to remind yourself that everyone needs to cry sometimes and you are giving your child a priceless gift: the loving acceptance of the full range of his feelings, and an opportunity to heal all that yucky emotional stuff he's unloading.

When he’s done, he will want to be close to you and reassured of your love. But – full circle to where we began – by giving him this safe space to express himself you will find that his tantrums lessen in severity so that he doesn’t need to hurt you, or himself. And you’ll find that your relationship with him will deepen. In fact, as much as this attentive parenting is a gift to your son, it is even more of a gift to yourself, because your son will become much more cooperative, not just during the "terrible twos", but throughout his childhood.

Good luck, and enjoy your little guy. He'll be through this phase and on to the next before you know it!
Dr. Laura

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Anonymous commented on 24-Oct-2009 08:27 AM
Tantrums is his way to express himself. articles really helped me.
Kyla commented on 26-Apr-2011 08:36 PM
This is very helpful. Going through it with my 20 month old son. Rough DAY!
Laura Campbell commented on 09-May-2011 04:02 AM
You are a star! i was so worried that my son had something terribly wrong with him, he started banging his head this weekend and i came straight on to the net to get some answers.
Anonymous commented on 22-May-2011 12:12 PM
I feel the same.. Had a tough day with my 19month old and I thought he was sick.. This really helped! Tx
Anonymous commented on 02-Dec-2011 09:27 AM
Thank you. This is more helpful than the Walk Away advice. I feel a bit more empowered now and ready to be compassionate rather than do battle. I have been a bit distracted lately with my first christmas show for 5 years and the twins have been taking
second place, unusually. This fits in perfectly with your 'disconnected' theory and also fits with the time pattern and start of the tantrums. Luckily tonight is the last night of selling and I can 'give them back' their mum tomorrow.
kmday commented on 08-Dec-2011 01:54 PM
This is a very interesting article and I'm excited to start trying these techinques with my 2 yr old. I do have a question though....will this method help..I guess quickly? I mean will my 2 year old still be regularly hitting and hurting and tantruming
at 3 and 4 years old or should he and we have a better handle on expressing the emotions correctly? Thanks so much!
kl commented on 29-Dec-2011 11:41 AM
@kmday: Yes, it will help and soon. I had a similar problem to the letter writer's, and within a few weeks my son had stopped these tantrums. Upon occasion, he still has tantrums, but we are able to work through my son's feelings quickly and effectively
using Dr. Laura's advice.
NGupta commented on 31-Dec-2011 08:47 PM
Thank you for such a detailed and helpful response. Me and my wife appreciate it. My daughter who is 2 yr old has lived with grand parents for last 4 months and just returned back with my wife. We are struggling to help manage her emotions.Your response
will help us deal with it.
Anonymous commented on 22-Feb-2012 03:02 PM
Thanks for the info - my family had advised to ignore them, but they are getting worse, exactly as you describe in your article. I'll be putting the steps that you list into practice. Fingers crossed that they work - I don't want him hurting himself anymore!
Anonymous commented on 23-Feb-2012 03:34 PM
I have been having the same issues with my 18 month old for the last 4 months, gradually increasing in length and intensity of tantrum. I find it soooo hard watching him hit his own head :( and the constant whining all day for what he wants is really taking
its toll on me. I have been thinking it was me as my 9 year old daughter was nothing like this but my pregnancy with her was alot less stressful, so have been blaming myself an awful lot as I think many loving mums do. I am not such a big fan of the ignoring
tantrums, there is something so unloving about it and being an unloving mum is not really for me lol. I shall start putting these suggestions ridgedly into place as of tomorrow and keep you all updated as to our progress and any questions. Fingers crossed.
Tanya (nz) commented on 03-Mar-2012 05:23 AM
Help! My son is 2 1/2yrs old and has always been a dream to put to bed. A routine of "bottle and bed" saw him happy and often running and getting himself into bed ready to have his bottle and be tucked in and kissed goodnight. But...for the last 3 nights
he has been having the most awful tantrums, refusing to get into bed, refusing his bottle, throwing it across the room, running and slamming full-force into the door as it is being shut, kicking and head-banging on the door and screaming and crying. I tried
repeatedly going in and giving him a cuddle before telling him it's bedtime and time to go to sleep, and then leaving the room, but the tantrum continued for hours. The next night I left him in his room hoping he would give in and put himself to bed, but he
just screamed and cried for nearly an hour, it broke my heart and didn't work. Both nights his Daddy ended up having to lay with him holding him until he fell asleep, but we don't want to have to that every night!! I just don't know how to use your approach
at bedtime...any tips would be so much appreciated. (...he had also been banging his head on tables and the floor etc during the day so the pattern of anger and frustration has crossed over to bedtime) Please help.
GMW commented on 06-Mar-2012 08:00 PM
well my son goes right to bed still and for that I'm happy... he has recently started banging his and this article is just what I needed. I wanted to comment on Tanya's comments - try leaving the door open or cracked. We really don't like sleeping w/the
doors closed and neither do either of my sons. I really think that after saying your prayers together, give kiss or hug, no eye contact say good night then leave door cracked will make night times much less scary and alone. Make sure night light is on in hallway.
Also, it helps if there is little noise in the house during this time... this will make him feel respected.
Anonymous commented on 24-Apr-2012 07:20 PM
This is very good information. I appreciate your time in putting this down in words so that a frustrated first time mother can learn how to deal with their small child in a loving way :) Thank you so much

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