Why Do Kids Hit Themselves? 11 Reasons and Solutions
Parents might debate whether or not spanking a child is the right form of discipline, but it can be disconcerting to see your child hit themselves.
Why do kids hit themselves?
There are a variety of reasons, and these reasons can themselves vary with age.
Here, We will explain why the child may hit themselves in these situations as well as point out when you need to consult with an expert.
Let's Get Started Reasons and Solutions on Why Do Kids Hit Themselves.
Reason 1: Head banging is a relief for babies.
Mild head banging in babies can be a form of self-soothing. It isn’t uncommon for children starting around age six months to bang their head repeatedly into a pillow, especially as they’re trying to fall back asleep.
When sitting, they may bang their head against the side of the crib. Some children will do this along with leg banging as a form of self-stimulation, learning how it feels.
This is rarely of any danger to the child, and it typically disappears by the time the child is a year and a half old. In these cases, the answer to the question “why does my toddler hit himself?” is that they’ve been doing it as self-soothing for most of their lives.
If they’re doing this and getting hurt, put bumpers in the crib or remove the other items in their environment that could harm them. And give them more comfort objects like stuffed animals so that hitting themselves isn’t their default choice.
While the crib shouldn’t be full of activity centers and distractions, half a dozen blankets and stuffed animals to hold onto and play with when upset may end their head banging. Furthermore, they may shift from banging their head on the pillow to rearranging bedding.
It is equally soothing, but there is no harm to it. Just don’t let the pillows and blankets be so thick that it creates a pocket of stale air in front of the child’s face when sleeping.
Note that deliberate head banging is very different from a child losing their ability to hold their head up. If they are trying to keep their head up and cannot, contact a doctor to determine the root cause.
Reason 2: Curiosity
There are jokes that children will try anything once, though they may learn not to do it again in the process. If a child hits themselves, they will typically stop after the first few times it hurt because they’ve learned that it does hurt.
This type of experiment is exemplified by a child pinching a classmate who screams. They may then pinch themselves and learn that it hurt. Once they say ow or cry, they may not do it again.
Why do kids hit themselves after that point? Let’s learn a few more reasons why your child may be hitting themselves.
Reason 3: They can’t express their feelings.
One survey found that one out of every four children hit themselves, bang their heads or bite themselves when they can’t deal with frustration.
Even adults may feel like doing this as exemplified by the saying, “I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall.” Toddlers are prone to biting, grabbing, hitting and smacking as they try to assert themselves but lack the language skills to express themselves.
Thus it is easier to hit another child if they won’t give them the toy. And the child may hit themselves because they can’t express their frustration or displeasure any other way.
Adults have immortalized this with the classic motion of slapping both hands on your cheeks while putting on a look of surprise. But your child’s version involves slapping themselves when you say no.
Don’t overlook this type of behavior. Instead, help the child express themselves. Teach them that they’re angry, upset, disappointed, frustrated. Tell them what they could do instead, and model the behavior.
For example, take the child to the playmate and ask for the toy. Show, rather than tell, because your child can’t understand a complex series of instructions.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t yell at your child or hit them to punish them. That will amplify the negative emotions while interfering in one of the only coping mechanisms they have.
They may resort to worse coping mechanisms or shut down emotionally instead. Or they start hitting others because they can’t take it out on themselves. If you’re lucky, they decide to throw toys instead.
Reason 4: The child is in pain.
Yes, your child might hit themselves to self-soothe while they’re in pain. This can seem counter-intuitive. After all, the hitting itself can hurt, but it may be a distraction from their discomfort. Or it may be an attempt at relief.
A child pulling at their ear to ease the pain of an ear infection might slap the ear to see if that helps. A teething toddler may bite themselves to relieve the gum pain, and they might hit their cheeks in a similar attempt to feel better.
If your child is teething, give the child more teething toys or give them pain reliever. If your child is pulling at their ear, check their temperature to see if they have a fever. If in doubt, talk to your doctor as soon as possible.
For example, a child won’t hit themselves because their knee hurts from a recent fall, but they might do so for a serious stomach pain that won’t go away.
Reason 5: It is generating the attention they desire.
Sometimes the child is doing something because it resulted in laughter or positive reactions from friends. For example, your child might have hit themselves in frustration and their classmates laughed.
Then they might hit themselves to generate more laughter. This is the literal origin of slapstick humor. What is the solution? Stop the positive reinforcement for the undesirable behavior.
Don’t laugh. Don’t smile. This is why the child will stop, if the minor discomfort of hitting themselves doesn’t generate laughter or praise from others.
Reason 6: They’re being forced to do it.
This is more likely the case with preschoolers and older children. Why did your child slap themselves? Because it was that or the bully hitting them, and they had more control over how much it hurt.
Or the bully felt a jolt of pleasure in making someone hurt themselves, because it is both an exercise of power and entertaining to watch. Unlike reason 4, the child isn’t doing this willingly for the entertainment of their friends.
They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t feel like the alternatives were worse. The solution is to talk to your child about what happened. Why did they do it? What was going on around them?
You might learn that they were threatened with a beating or having items permanently taken from them if they didn’t do it. If the child never does it away from school or daycare, it may be caused by someone else.
Note that this behavior might be a cry for attention, rather than external abuse.
Reason 7: They’re doing it for attention.
There is also the possibility the child is doing it for attention that they can’t get any other way. Parents tend to respond when their child is hurt. And children may notice that they get their parent’s attention for better or for worse if they head-bang or hit their face.
If you see them smiling when you look at them when they do it, they may be doing it to get your attention. This is highly likely if they were getting positive reactions from peers or if they’ve been trying to get your attention another way.
The solution is to give the child positive attention well before that point, and don’t reinforce the behavior by giving them attention when they’re hitting themselves.
If they seem particularly frustrated, talk to them about their feelings, play with them, and then give them a comfort object. Just don’t give them the toy right after they hit themselves, or they may think that slapping themselves is how you get a teddy bear.
Consider whether or not you’re medicalizing everything. Is the only time your child gets positive, caring attention when they’re hurt? The child might hit themselves to get your attention and then keep it as a patient.
The solution is to give them healthy attention instead. Have a routine, and have set times throughout the day where your child gets devoted attention. This could be an extended story time before nap time and bed time.
It should include asking your child what they did during the day at dinner and having real conversations (at their level). This shows them that you care. And it may eliminate their need to hit themselves in order to get you to show that you care.
Reason 8: It is a sign of a serious neurodevelopmental disorder.
Head-banging is a common symptom of a condition like autism, though it can also take the form of a child hitting themselves for the sake of simulation. Hitting themselves or head-banging may be a sign of attention deficit disorder, too.
In fact, the ADHD could cause them to be constantly frustrated, so the hitting is an attempt to relieve or express their frustration at failing to make themselves understood.
If the child is hitting themselves and has other symptoms of a neurological developmental disorder like poor social skills, delayed language development, reduced engagement with peers or stimming like hand flapping, talk to your pediatrician.
You should get a referral to a pediatric neurologist or psychologist for an evaluation. Or you may learn that your child is hard-of-hearing, and the motions are an expression of their frustration at not understanding others.
Autism is more likely if the child has always been uninterested in eye contact and faces. Hearing problems are more likely if the child was developing normally until the behavior appeared.
Reason 9: They’re acting out.
The term acting out has a negative connotation. It suggests he child is acting up to get in trouble or garner negative attention. It may be a literal reenactment of what is happening in life.
If a child is being abused, they may hit themselves as punishment for doing something wrong the way others do. The example they’re following may be a bully, a teacher, an older sibling or a parent.
Ask them who they see hitting and being hit. With younger children, you might need to listen to the word they’re repeating as part of the routine. Who says these things? When does it happen?
They might be showing you what happens when they drop a toy or run into someone at school, though they lack the words to tell you directly. This is most likely between the ages of one and two.
What is the solution? End the abuse. If you’re not sure where they’re picking it up, you’re perfectly justified in choosing another caregiver.
Reason 10: It is part of a temper-tantrum.
This is actually the easiest root cause to identify. If your child is in the middle of a full-fledged fit, kicking, screaming and crying, they may be hitting themselves as part of the display of displeasure.
If you get upset when they do it, that’s reason enough for them to do it. You can physically restrain the child, if you’re concerned they may hurt themselves.
You can let them vent steam, then talk to them about how they feel and why you did (or didn’t) do what you did.
Remember that “no” is a full sentence, so you don’t have to explain why you don’t have the money to buy something.
Reason 11: Other reasons
If you’re asking yourself “why does my toddler hit himself” and it isn’t obviously one of the first ten reasons on this list, consult with your pediatrician to find the right answer instead of assuming it will go away on its own.
If there is a medical or psychological reason for the child hitting themselves, it needs to be treated as soon as possible. Behavioral issues may get worse over time, too, as they become more deeply ingrained.
If it hasn’t gone away on its own after a few days, you need to consult with a professional.
Why do kids hit themselves? They could do so for a variety of reasons, but you must always take action to resolve the problem rather than risks that come with letting it go on and potentially get worse.