Why Is My Toddler Hitting Herself?

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Last Friday, when I went to nursery to pick up Elizabeth, one of the carers said she needed, ‘a quiet word’. “Elizabeth hits herself when she is told off” she told me. “Do you know about this?”. I did actually, and told her so. But WHY is my toddler hitting herself?

Why is My Toddler Hitting Herself?

why is my toddler hitting herself?

The nursery nurse really worried me about this being an issue. It was obviously something that she hadn’t come across before.

The awkward truth of the matter is that I hit myself when I get mad. I’m ashamed to admit it, I self punish as a release to the frustration I feel and the anxiety I suffer. But Elizabeth has NEVER seen me do this. So to find out that she possibly does the same really upsets me.

I know that they call it the “Terrible Twos”. But even Supernanny hadn’t prepared me for this.

I always have thought Elizabeth was a typical toddler. Testing boundaries. Seeing how far she can go before being called naughty. Not malicious, just toddler behaviour.

Naughty Step

6 months or so ago we started using the “Naughty Step” technique. I bought a mat and a timer. But Elizabeth just laughs and I don’t think it has really made any difference.

I feel like we give her too much of her own way. According to Supernanny it’s easy. We’ve done all the steps that Supernanny suggests.

  • Explaining why we want the good behaviour/ to stop the bad behaviour
  • Then giving a warning
  • and an ultimatum.
  • Finally it is time for the naughty step. And asking the toddler why they have been put there. Then expecting an apology and having a cuddle, before moving on.

But it doesn’t work. Elizabeth either comes straight off, running away. Or goes off and does something even more naughty. She fights us. Runs away. Kicks. Cries. Screams.

Why is my Toddler Hitting Themselves?

And now, worst of all she hits herself when we tell her off or say ‘no’ to her demands. I decided to find out, is this normal behaviour? Why is my she doing it? Is it a sign that she could also self harm in years to come?

What is the cause?

As we all know, toddlers can be pretty manipulative, and quite intelligent in the ways that they try to get our attention and to get their own way. We can already see this manipulation with E, she cries to get attention, then listens. If we ignore her cries, she will try a different type of crying. We might give in, or not.

She may also bite to get attention.

So is this head hitting a new form of getting attention, and being manipulative?

At the moments I am taking this as a sign of pure frustration that she cannot put into words how she is feeling. That she just cannot vocalise how she feels when she cannot get her own way.

Understanding emotions is a problem for little ones – this game can help.

The Color Monster

My actions are going to be to respond to her emotions by gently and calmly using the words for the emotions that I think that she is feeling. Maybe by saying, “You’re really upset” or “You’re really angry” and then telling her to stop hurting herself. Hopefully by telling her that it hurts me to see her hurting herself, she may think twice about doing it.

I just want her to know that I care and that I know how she feels.

In time I hope that she will grow out of this behaviour. But it will be being monitored, believe me.

Why is my toddler hitting themselves?

Do you have a toddler that is hitting themselves? I would love to hear your comments, or find me on social media.

Enjoyed this? Why not read my tips for when a Toddler has a Broken Leg.

How Do I Get My Child To Brush Their Teeth?

Or tips on Toilet training.

And read how we prepared Elizabeth for a Tonsillectomy

27 Replies to “Why Is My Toddler Hitting Herself?”

  1. kerry robinson says:

    First I want to say there is no shame or judgement in you doing the same xx
    Secondly – I’m no expert or medical proffesional but it’s common for toddlers to hit themselves, bang thier heads off walls and even hold thier breath when angry, upset or just trying to get thier own way. I would imagine the question is how hard is she doing it?
    My son is ASD (I’m not sufggesting this is what is going on ) but he used to lash out. We find he will scratch himself if he is trying ahrd to control his anger. I find this really worrying. xx
    Maybe it’s worth talking to your health visitor but please don’t feel guilty, judged or ashamed. I wish you lots of love and hugs and I hope you find a solution. xx

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      Thank you. I don’t think she does it hard just yet. But I am going to keep a close watch.

      1. Dana says:

        Hi Jo, I know this is from a year ago but I just came across this while googling self hitting. My daughter is almost 3.5 and has been doing this for a long time. She started school in September and has been getting therapy since 18 months. I’d love to chat w/ you about this. I’m struggling to help her with this and it seems like her school/therapists are struggling to help although they keep telling me they are trying to research etc. thanks

        1. Jo Boyne says:

          Hi Dana. Sorry to hear that you are struggling with this. It is a difficult one, and I cannot say that we are totally out of the woods ourselves. E still hits herself occasionally and has ‘big emotions’. Just like me. At their age, though, they are only just learning how to deal with all the emotions they are feeling. I have been told that it is quite common at this age for children to do this, and that they grow out of it. They cannot even process or describe all the emotions that they are feeling, so it must be truly hard and horrible for them. As well as for us as parents watching them struggle. Hopefully the therapists will be able to work through all this with you. I am certainly no expert, but as time goes on as a mum, I can start to put strategies into place that help us deal. And hopefully you will find those too.

  2. Anne says:

    It’s always worrying when your child does things like this, and even more so when it’s picked up at school or nursery. I think you are doing the right thing, trying to help her vocalise her distress rather than hitting herself. Some may say she needs more discipline, some may say she needs more gentle parenting. I’m more of a gentle parent and I’ve found that punishments like the ‘naughty step’ have had much less affect than care and understanding. Every child is different and you have to find what works for you, what you feel comfortable with and what helps your little girl. And I’m sorry if I’m being blunt, but I think you need to stop self punishing too and find another way of releasing your frustration and anxiety xxx

  3. Leanne | www.crestingthehill.com.au says:

    I feel really fortunate that my kids didn’t do this – or bite other children (two things that worry loving mothers!) The fact that you understand what her underlying issues are and you’re looking for ways to address these without her having to resort to hitting herself, shows what a great parent you are. Also being aware that more intervention might be needed if your techniques don’t work is also a healthy way to look at the situation. Good for you for being so honest about something a lot of parents have to cope with.

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      Thank you for such kind words. I do hope that it is just a phase she goes through.

  4. Lisa Pomerantz says:

    I can say that the two’s and three’s have challenged me more than most things in life. This behavior, while probably good to recognize and take note of, will pass. I hope that you too, can let go of your self punishment in difficult times. The moment is already hard, be gentle and loving to your self, or as you would treat a friend! You deserve that, and so does she! #globalblogging xox

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      Thank you Lisa for such kind words and advice. I do hope so. x

  5. Enda Sheppard says:

    I know of two people that did that self-punishing thing, and it just passed off. And they are well-adjusted normal adults now! As for the naughty step, it worked with our daughter well enough, but our son wasn’t having it, and it never worked with him so had to be abandoned. We have always had to negotiate contentious issues with him. #DreamTeam

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      I get the feeling that E is going to be a bit of a queen in the debating department. Maybe it’s a good grounding for a legal career for them both?

  6. Helen Copson says:

    I’ve not heard of a toddler hitting themselves, but my best friend’s son used to headbutt the floor or wall (or anything) when he was in a mood or being told off. That was when he was two. He is now 3.5 and has totally grown out of it. I guess it’s like you said, they don’t know how to deal with their emotions at that age. My three year old hits me when I tell him off! I’m hoping he’ll grow out of that one too!

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      E often tries to hit me too! I hope they both grow out of it!

  7. Katie Dickson says:

    This must be so upsetting for you. But don’t beat yourself up over it! I’m not a parenting expert but it sounds to me as if E is just frustrated at not quite yet being able to vocalise her frustrations when they happen. Most importantly, you are doing all the right things by facing her issues WITH her rather than challenging her. You sound (and look!) so much like a perfectly lovely mummy, and one I’m sure E is immensely proud of. In years to come I’m sure she’ll tell you this. Give yourself a break – you’re not doing anything wrong. You should win a prize for determination and patience! xx

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      Thank you Katie. I do hope so, though if she is anything like I was we will fight like cat and dog. Looking forward to it!

  8. Kate - The Mum Conundrum says:

    My son (who’s now nearly 6) did this as a toddler – I remember feeling really disconcerted by it and wondering what the hell was going on with him. He grew out of it some time after his 3rd birthday though. I think it’s a way to deal with mental overload and not knowing how to process emotions very well. I’ve met other Mum’s whose kids did the same at some point. This too shall pass my lovely. Thanks for linking up with #ItsOK xxx

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      Thanks Kate, I’m sure it will too having read more about it all. It just isn’t nice to see.

  9. Heather Keet says:

    As someone who worked with kids under 5 for over a decade, please let me reassure you – this is fairly normal. It only becomes a concern if it continues for more than a few months, increases in frequency, or causes physical harm to the child. I’d recommend speaking with your child’s doctor about it immediately so you have another professional keeping an eye on the situation – they should also be able to give you some coping strategies. All too often it can continue for too long or be handled inappropriately (especially in a daycare setting) and cause further behaviors to develop. #GlobalBlogging

  10. Amy - The Rolling Baby says:

    It sounds like she doesn’t know how else to communicate her feelings to others. My 18 month old occasionally bites herself and I think she’s testing the boundaries. I understand what a worrying time this is, but I’m sure you’ll both get through it #dreamteam

  11. childcare Springfield says:

    It is an important relationship in anything especially if it’s about the welfare of your child. Always build a good relationship with those who takes care of them

  12. Sue says:

    The naughty step never worked for me either! I gave up reading advice and things got better. I now just let my daughter calm down and then talk to her.

    My daughter has hit herself before losing her temper when she couldn’t get her own way or she will scream and slam doors. I think it’s a way to let off steam when you’re frustrated.

    I admit I’ve pulled my hair in utter despair and wanted to scream (this was when I was being emotionally abused by my husband and he was twisting things, then when I did this he told me I was mad and I had a problem!)

    I remember my mother doing it when I was a kid when she’d had enough.

    Where can we vent our tempers when we have had enough? We can’t can we really! Not without it being frowned on by others if you lose it.

    Don’t worry, you’re very normal, I’m sure we’ve all been there at some point. xx

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      Thank you Sue. You’re right about the venting. I’ve heard the best thing is to really scream. But it just never seemed right. Like you say, society frowns when you lose it. Hopefully she will just grow out of it!

  13. Bread says:

    Snappy is two and a half and hits himself on the head when he’s told off. We ignore it, turn our heads and look the other way. It was advice from a friend of hers who’s kid did the same thing. We’ve been doing this for a while now and his instances of lashing out like this are less frequent. He definitely does it more when he’s tired. It scared me a lot because I used to self-harm but it’s not the same thing as that. #kcacols

    1. Jo Boyne says:

      E has stopped pretty much mow too. Which at least is one thing. But she moved onto biting!


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