Originally posted Sept. 4, 2009
We parents often scratch our heads and wonder about our kids'
undesirable behaviors, but what if they serve some very real
purpose? While we may want to set limits on them and often
should, sometimes it can be helpful to also 'listen' to what these
behaviors are trying to tell us.
Try to think of your child's behaviors as little flags, drawing
you toward something deeper that requires your thoughtful
For example, no matter how old we are, we often unconsciously
manage stressful circumstances beyond our control by asserting
power and control over the things we can control.
When you're little, that can mean eating when you feel like it and
potty-training where and when you're good and ready. It also
means utilizing whatever resources you have at your disposal, which
reminds me of a letter I recently received from a reader:
I have a 2 ½- year- old son. He used to bang his head
into the wall or floor when he got angry or frustrated. He
appeared to grow out of this stage, but recently has
regressed. He is typically a very loving and fun child. He
loves to play baseball and soccer and is willing to try anything,
including new foods, but lately he's become a very rough and tough
little boy, with the help of the neighbor boys. They are six months
older than he is and do have a habit of ganging up on my son from
time to time. My son used to just cry when this happened, and
we'd insist on an apology and redirect the boys, but recently my
son has taken matters into his own hands and has begun head butting
one of them instead. I haven't witnessed this behavior with other
kids. I'm concerned that my son is going to seriously injure
this child and/or himself. I have heard about kids biting but
never the head butting. I don't know what to do other than to
keep the play dates to a minimum, with constant supervision. I
don't feel I can leave my son in a room with these boys. Is
it possible that there is a problem with my son? Is this a
sign of some disease (autism)? Should I call his doctor?
Your child is still very young, but he seems mighty resourceful
already. Crying didn't do the trick, so he's employing
whatever other resources he has in an effort to make his feelings
known. It makes sense that he would be angry and want to
stand his ground in this situation. Though I don't endorse
his methods, his response indicates an inclination toward
self-preservation and an ability to be his own advocate, attributes
which will serve him well throughout his life. You can
certainly redirect him to use his words to get his point across,
but at 2 ½, when language skills aren't fully developed,
it's not nearly as satisfying as a good head butt. Makes
sense to me.
Head butting, biting and temper tantrums can be quite
disconcerting for parents, but they're quite typical for
toddlers. These behaviors tend to subside as children master
language and learn to use and discover words that effectively
express their feelings of anger and frustration. Our mastery
of receptive language - the ability to comprehend others' speech -
typically develops more rapidly than our ability to express our
Imagine how frustrated and desperate you might feel if you could
not yet speak in ways that others understood?
Many local libraries offer sign language classes for babies,
young children and their parents, with the goal of bridging the gap
between kids' receptive and expressive language skills. Aside
from being a nifty thing to learn (and easier to pick up than
expressive language, for our little ones), I hear that this often
provides tremendous relief and fun for many families during this
normal developmental transition.
As for playmates, your instinct to closely supervise your son's
playdates with this particular child is right on, but I'd also
encourage you to consider broadening his social circle. Your
son isn't likely to feel the need to resort to head butting with
other children, who might be more willing to play fair. Limit
the occasions when he ends up resorting to head butting, as the
more he uses it the more it gets reinforced as a tool for
dealing with others who frustrate him. It sounds like
you're already headed in the right direction with this.
I would never discourage you from consulting your child's doctor,
but nothing you've mentioned makes me urge you to run to the
phone. Head banging and butting are certainly on the list of
symptoms often exhibited by kids with autism and other
developmental delays, but given the prevalence of these particular
behaviors among typical toddlers, I wouldn't be alarmed.
But do listen to your child's behaviors. This oddly simple
shift in perspective, where you reframe your child's undesirable
behaviors as clues, can really work wonders. You get to rise
above your irritation and worry, and what you discover may make all
of the difference.
Tips for Parents:
Did you know that early-childhood head butting could simply be a
symptom of an ear infection? (You know how you sometimes tap
on your head to shake out the water after a vigorous swim?
Same idea, here.) Have your pediatrician sneak a peek
to rule it out.
Avoid using physical punishment, which only communicates that
aggression, including head butting, is an acceptable way to handle
frustration and conflict.
If 'listening' to an undesirable behavior reveals no insight
into what troubles your child, and setting limits on it seems only
to inspire more of the same behavior, try simply ignoring the
behavior and redirecting his attention toward some other
activity. Behaviors will often diminish or disappear
altogether with this method. If your child remains troubled,
however, he may find other flags (new behaviors) to wave until you
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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