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Dealing with Violent Temper Tantrums

Q. When my 2-year-old daughter has a tantrum, she will bump her head against the wall. Afraid she might hurt herself, I often give in. Am I setting a bad precedent?

A. Who can blame you? It is very upsetting to see our children hurt themselves, and it makes limit-setting difficult.

Why Do Toddlers Bang Their Heads?

Identifying the meaning and purpose of the head bumping is critical for developing an appropriate response. In some cases, children head-bang out of frustration because they have limited ways to communicate their needs and feelings. Once children have the language to express themselves more effectively, the behavior usually stops. Kids may engage in this behavior to soothe themselves, most often when they are overstimulated or tired.

They also use head bumping to get what they want, as parents will do almost anything to persuade them to stop. If this behavior works, your child probably won't give it up. And unless she is bumping against a sharp surface, such as the edge of the table, she can't bump hard enough to cause any serious harm. The more emotional you get, the more rewarding head bumping will be for her.

Instead, take a moment to consider what she is feeling. Helping your child recognize when she is angry is the first step in teaching her to manage these feelings: "I know you are really mad that you can't watch another video." Tell her you will figure out what she can do when she calms down. Then go about your business while keeping an eye on her. When she does pull herself together, give her lots of kudos.

Alternative Ways to Express Emotion

Later, during a calm moment, you might also talk with your daughter and let her know that everyone gets angry and that feeling this emotion is okay. Then brainstorm with her about different ways she can express herself. (This helps her learn other, more acceptable methods of coping.) For example, she can stomp her feet or draw an angry picture.

Don't be afraid of your child's anger. Instead, look at these (admittedly, not very fun) "teachable moments" as opportunities to help your daughter learn to manage difficult feelings in healthy ways.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.