Parenting Advice Column
Our 2 year old son just started head banging when having a temper tantrum ... sometimes he will hit it so hard it hurts and then he comes running to make it "all better". The temper tantrums usually start when it is time to stop one activity due to dinner or bedtime. I read the letter about temper tantrums and will employ that method. What I am worried about is he is hurting himself ... I thought after it hurt once he would not do it again but he seems to be hitting harder sometimes. We are both very concerned with this behavior.
Katie and Rick
Thank you for writing and for seeking help with this worrisome problem.
Head-banging, as I'm sure you know, is a young child's way of expressing frustration and anger. Here are some suggestions for minimizing his frustration in the situations you describe.
1. Be sure that he has some warning - such as five minutes - that his activity will need to come to an end. A two-year-old hard at play is in reality hard at work, and we all know how difficult it can be to make a sudden shift from something we've been concentrating on. If you can establish a new way of notifying him that he will need to stop his activity in a few minutes - perhaps by using a kitchen timer - that should be helpful. He will then feel that you recognize the value of his activity and are demonstrating respect for what is after all his job.
If you're comfortable with it, you might simply let him choose the timing: "When you're finished with what you're doing, come to the table." Then if everyone else starts dinner, he may very well decide to join by himself. He will feel that he has some say in the matter, which might make all the difference.
2. Give some thought as to whether the new activity proposed is unappealing to him for any reason. If he always protests about dinner, for example, is it possible that he's just not hungry yet? Perhaps a rescheduling of meal times might prevent the difficulty. Have there been disturbing discussions at dinner lately that might be postponed to a more suitable time? It's always best to prevent tantrums, of course, than to have to figure out how to handle them.
3. Before asking for him to stop an activity that he's absorbed in, be sure that it's important enough to warrant this interruption. In our society, we're led to think that the child should make sacrifices to meet the parents' needs. It would be more fair and avoid excessive frustration to interrupt him only when really necessary. Ask yourself each time whether the interruption is really necessary. If he's really not hungry, is it worth the effort to have him sit with you at dinner?
4. If you think he's feeling overcontrolled, consider giving him a choice. Would he prefer to play or join you at the table? Perhaps if you gave him a choice, he might choose to continue playing the first few times, but once he understands that he has some control over the situation, he might willingly join you at dinner.
5. When you must interrupt his activity, try to be as gentle, unrushed, and as close physically as you can be. If you're right there with him, you can physically protect him from hitting his head on anything dangerous. Instead of calling to him from a distance and expecting him to stop right then and come to you (if this is what is happening), go to him once the timer rings, and kneel down to his level. Give him full eye contact and quietly let him know that it's time to shift activities. Expressions of empathy will be important too: "You're really having fun with that puzzle. Now it's time for dinner." If he protests, pick him up as gently as possible and carry him, while validating his feelings.
6. You might also try a substitution of activity, so that instead of simply having the frustration of ending one activity, he is invited to start another one that he enjoys. When my son was little, he would get fully absorbed in his activities, especially at a playground. Because he also liked to run races, I would give him a few minutes notice, and then invite him to race with me to the car. To help your child to move on to dinnertime, perhaps you could have a favorite toy waiting for him at the table.
The most important thing is to show respect - respect for him as a whole person despite his size, and respect for his play (his work). A toddler who is busily exploring the world around him is truly involved in scientific investigation. It might be helpful, then, to consider how you would handle things if you had a visiting scientist over for dinner, and he was absorbed in his work when the meal was ready. I think any of us in that situation would be respectful, patient, understanding, and pleasant. Our children deserve nothing less.
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