In this episode: Janet answers a question from a parent whose toddler resorts to hurting himself when he’s angry or frustrated, and she’s wondering if there are some “better options” to teach him when he’s expressing his emotions.
Transcript of “Children Hurting Themselves When They’re Upset”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be responding to an issue that is fairly common. This parent has a specific question, but I often get questions along these lines from parents who are concerned that their children are hurting themselves when they get upset, and what can the parent do about that.
So here’s the question I received:
“My toddler is biting himself when he is frustrated and mad in situations. We know he is expressing himself, but want to help teach him other strategies. Is there an article already posted about this where we can get some insight? Or what would some better options be, other than biting himself?”
So I often get notes like this, parents asking about their toddler hitting their head on the floor when they’re upset or scratching themselves, biting themselves, doing other harmful behaviors. And this is a bit of a sensitive issue, because what happens is: a child will be in the midst of a tantrum, and just have this impulse to hit their head on the floor, hit their head on something, or bite themselves, as in this example. And that’s a very organic response that they have right there, but our emotions in the situation and our response are kind of crucial.
Naturally, we get upset. We’re human, and here’s our little baby hurting himself or herself. This is really scary. We want to say, “Stop. No, I won’t let you.” And so our reaction ends up influencing our child even more to want to repeat what they noticed pushed such a button in their parents. We’re infusing the situation and whatever emotion our child is feeling with our own emotion. And that becomes something kind of interesting and puzzling that our child has to then figure out.
Children in these early years are amazing learners and they’re deeply compelled to figure things out, especially things about their parents. “What makes them tick? What’s going on? What gets a reaction? Why is it that they lose their cool sometimes, when I’m just doing something impulsive?”
So they then have to explore that. They may still be in a tantrum, but now there’s this added element where they’re drawing us into it through their behavior. So that’s obviously where we don’t want to head with this, because that’s when a child’s natural, lashing out behavior can become more dangerous. On its own, these kinds of meltdown behaviors do not tend to cause serious damage. Children will not intentionally damage themselves seriously. It’s more that they want to connect with something, they want to feel something, they want to lash out, and it’s not unhealthy.
But when we get involved, it can cross those lines. Obviously, that’s the last thing we want to happen. So then we have this very challenging job of not only trusting the feelings and the tantrum and the meltdown and the frustration, that it’s healthy for our child to experience that, but also trusting the way it’s manifesting. Obviously, we’re going to be able to block when harmful behavior comes directed at us. We’re going to be able to put our hand there and say, “Yes, you wanna hit me right now. You’re that mad.” Or if our child’s actually in the eye of the storm of the tantrum, the best thing is not to say anything, but just have that be our subtext if our child does make eye contact. We’re nodding, we have our hand placed there easily to stop whatever’s going on.
But then if our child is doing this to themselves, we still have to trust. We can’t come in with fear and helping them protect themselves. This is an example of parenting for the big picture, which is one of our big challenges as parents, and hard to do, because the big picture and what we want to do in the moment often don’t go together. What most of want to do in that moment, when our child’s hurting themselves or even when our child’s having a meltdown and not hurting themselves, we want to say, “Oh hey, it’s not so bad. Ooh. Don’t do that to yourself. What’s going on? You can feel better.”
We want to stop the feeling, most of us. And especially if the feeling is causing scary behavior. We just want that to stop. But again, those reactions in the moment will actually make this behavior worse and more frequent. So we have to see it a different way. We have to see it with trust. And then once we have that trusting attitude, there are some things that we can do. But they have to be from a chilled-out place. And they have to be while we’re encouraging the feelings.
In other words, in this situation with the toddler biting himself, you might say, “Yeah, ooh. You wanna bite yourself. Here’s something you can bite.” And then we have a teething ring or something. We’re not running off to get something. We’re not urgent. We’re just offering the suggestion. That’s the best we can do. That’s the best chance we have for our child to take us up on that and not need to keep exploring the power of their behavior over us.
So, if a child is hitting their head on the floor, let’s say, there the child isn’t even looking at us, so I wouldn’t say anything unless they made eye contact. But I would just get a little thin pillow or something and just tuck it under my child’s head while they’re in the middle of that. Not trying to stop the emotion. Again, actually encouraging them to vent, because I know that that needs to happen. That’s the best thing they can do. And I’m just gonna do some little things to make it a little safer for them.
But I’m seeing that in the big picture, my child having their flow of emotions and me not getting in the way of that is the best thing. That’s how they will get the message that it’s safe for you to go to these places in yourself. And they do pass. That’s what builds resilience, and eventually, children do have more emotional self-control. What we can provide is the safety and trust and the message that, “It’s okay for you to feel what you’re feeling. I want you to do that. I don’t want you to try to put it away from me or hold it in or make it look different. I’m just here to hold the lines and the boundaries around hurting me or other children, or doing really dangerous things. But mostly, I trust you to vent.”
So this, like a lot of advice I give, isn’t easy. It’s an attitude. It’s really understanding our role in these situations is as more of a therapist. We don’t want to get in the way of what is healthy and important for our child to get out of their body.
So, the best way she can help teach her child other strategies is really just to trust what he’s doing right now and make small suggestions in the moment. Offer him other ways that he can get those feelings out safely, very gently, and then not trying to demand he takes you up on it.
One of the parents I was working with had this issue. Her daughter was banging her head on the floor when she was upset and the mother did the natural thing of, “Ooh, don’t do that. I can’t let you hurt yourself. I’m gonna stop you,” and reacting viscerally, as we do. She was telling me that now this was becoming something her daughter was doing, and even when she wasn’t that upset, she seemed to be doing it. So I said what I said in this podcast, basically. “Don’t give it power. Trust it. And if there’s something small you can do, like put a little blanket under her head, slip it under there. Don’t tell her you’re doing it, just kind of sneak it in.”
Then this mother told me the next time I saw her, she realized that her daughter was actually looking up at her first before she was hitting her head, which made it even clearer to this mother that that had become something she was doing for her mother. Obviously not something her mother wanted her to do, but she was engaged in her mother’s reaction to it, and that became the purpose of the behavior, to explore that.
I should mention quickly that, with head banging specifically, in some small children, it can be part of a developmental problem. Frequent head banging, particularly if there’s a question of developmental delay or abnormal social interactions, that should be evaluated by a doctor. So if you have any real concerns, please consult a professional.
I think this parent in the note really does have the right attitude. She says, “We know he’s expressing himself.” And yeah, I would just have her trust even more. I would suggest that she maybe gives a little casual alternative, but otherwise trust, stay out of his way. This too shall pass.
Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.