Q&A: Toddler punches himself in the head

Kirsty writes:

"My son is 16 months old and he just started punching himselfin the head this past week. I find it really upsetting and disturbing. He punches himself when he seems  frustrated, tired or isn’t getting what he wants. It can be only a couple times a day or countless times a day. At first I told him not to do it but I am afraid that might make him do it more. I am trying to just ignore it but fear he might not stop and will always use this method of “coping”. I asked a couple friends if their children did this and they said yes. But I’m not sure its to the same extent of my son. What should I do? I really don’t want him to be self destructive. Please help!"

First rule of Toddler Fight Club: There is no Toddler Fight Club.

Sorry--couldn't resist.

Seriously, though, I hate this stage. It's as annoying as any other, and scarier than most. I mean, why, why is your/my/her kid punching himself?? It just doesn't seem normal. And yet it is, apparently, because so many kids do it. Both of mine went through a form of it at around that age, and my office-mate's daughter is just starting to come out of a phase of slapping herself (she's 2).

I suspect that it's yet another manifestation of the fact that kids that age can't express their feelings as well as they want to, and don't really know how to process them. So the punching or slapping is just another way they release the tension/excitement/anger/frustration/joy because they don't know what else to do with it. It's like their bodies need to get out that emotion and energy, so the bodies make the limbs do things that don't make sense to adults.

I don't think there's any cure for it (other than taping your kid's hands to his sides with duck tape), but I'd suspect that kids who can communicate better (either because they're early talkers or because their parents teach them sign language) and who are super-active (to release the physical energy) do this less. and that some kids just don't do anything like this at all because they just don't.

Can I get some data points on that?

(And if you're interested in teaching your kid sign language, I've heard rave, RAVE reviews about the Signing Time DVDs, or you can use the excellent and free ASL browser from Michigan State University.)