Seeing one’s child banging his or her head against the wall or a wooden bed is alarming for parents, especially if the child is a baby or toddler. Parents are not only concerned about the possible pain and injury that may result from such an activity – they are also worried about the child’s psychological well-being. “Is something wrong with my baby?” is a reasonable question for parents to ask when their child deliberately harms himself.
In fact, in most cases, a child’s head-banging is caused by a normal desire for stimulation or soothing (as we will discuss below) — not by underlying mental health issues. Additionally, young kids rarely hurt themselves during head banging enough to cause considerable pain or head damage. Head-banging may also occur in certain developmental syndromes such as autism. In these cases, there will be other neurological and behavioral symptoms besides head banging. In an otherwise healthy child, head-banging is not a matter for intense concern.
What’s Behind Head-Banging?
Head banging can be a way for kids to get stimulation. The habit can relieve the discomfort of boredom or stress. Remember that during the toddler years, kids are in the process of understanding and appreciating different body sensations such as sights, sounds and even feelings of pain and discomfort. The sensation that comes when we bang our heads against a hard surface is new and foreign to a child, and understandably, the child is curious about it. Thus he may repeat head-banging so that he can explore the sensation better.
It’s also possible for children to head-bang in order to soothe themselves when they are anxious, in discomfort or otherwise distressed. In these cases, head banging is no different from thumb sucking or nail biting. It’s ironic, but it’s possible that children find the pain of head banging a distraction for their current discomfort or unease. Some kids may also find the rhythm of soft head banging comforting, in the same way that a slow and steady drum beat can be soothing, rhythmic head banging can be reassuring to a child.
What can Parents Do?
Safety is always a primary concern. Even if head-banging is usually harmless, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few extra precautions. As much as possible, keep young children away from hard surfaces like walls or bed posts. If there’s a risk that they will run into a hard surface, protect your child by putting a soft pillow or foam padding as insulation. If you can make it impossible for your child to head-bang against something hard, then you can worry less about head-banging behavior.
It may also help to provide your child with stimulation and soothing when you feel that he or she needs it. Toys of different shapes and colors, as well as materials of varying comfortable textures and temperatures can provide stimulation to a child. Rocking, singing a lullaby or a soft massage are also positive ways to provide soothing.
When parents suspect that unease, discomfort or stress is causing the head-banging behavior, they can offer their child the Bach Flower Remedy Agrimony. Two drops in liquid four times a day can be used until the banging diminishes. Or, for a more complete treatment, call a Bach Flower Practitioner. You can find more information about the Bach Remedies online and throughout this site.
Older children who are banging their heads may need more than Bach Remedies (although these should be tried first). Stress reduction through professional psychological counseling may be very helpful. If very young children are stressed, family counseling may be preferable. Parents may be able to make environmental changes that put the child more at ease.
When Should Parents be Concerned?
While head-banging is generally normal and harmless, there are occasions of head-banging behavior when parents need to provide their children with stronger interventions and/or professional help.
One situation is when kids use head banging as a way to get negative attention, punish themselves or release anger and frustration. When head banging is a deliberate action to achieve an end, parents should arrange a consultation with a child psychologist. The psychologist may help the parents intervene in more appropriate ways or he or she may work with the child directly in order to reduce underlying tensions.
But a second situation is when parents suspect an underlying medical or psychological condition behind the head banging behavior. If head banging is seen alongside symptoms of social withdrawal, delayed speech and motor development, and inability to empathize, parents should consider consult their pediatrician. A referral to a mental health professional for assessment can confirm or rule out a diagnosis of autism or pervasive developmental disorder. Head banging that seems beyond a child’s control may be a symptom of Tourette’s Syndrome. Various seizure disorders may also account for head banging behavior. To be certain, it’s best to get a child diagnosed by the appropriate medical or mental health professional.