Why Do Toddlers Hit Themselves? Experts Explain
Dealing with a frustrated or angry toddler can be a challenge, especially when they take their feelings out in a physical way. Sometimes they do this by hitting others, but often toddlers hit themselves to express these emotions. Watching this play out in front of you can, understandably, be a little panicky. As you wonder why your toddler is hitting themselves, you may also start to worry that something is seriously wrong.
While something like this isn't exactly normal or common, it's also not something you immediately need to stress over. Before you freak out, remember that there are a variety of reasons a toddler might do this, and those reasons depend on the child, so there is no "one size fits all" answer here. Pay attention to the circumstances surrounding any instance when your child hits themselves, notice their behavior on a regular basis and before and after these instances, and keep in mind outside influences as well.
Before speaking to your pediatrician or another expert about your child's behavior, take a look at some of the possible reasons your toddler is hitting themselves. And again, don't panic.
1. Motor Development Issues
Alyssa Wilkins, a therapist specializing in early childhood development and autism, tells Romper that the hitting could be about motor development. "Toddlers are learning higher levels of motor coordination as they grow," Wilkins says. "It is possible the child is hitting their self due to the natural incoordination of learning these new motor patterns."
Sensory development can play a part here as well. Wilkins adds, "They may enjoy the tactile input of hitting themselves or are trying to get a better understanding of where they are in space. This could be an indicator of a behavioral or developmental need and should be monitored for future evaluation from a professional."
2. A Desire For Sensory Input
Your child may be hitting themselves in order to physically feel something. Occupational therapist Rivkie Berger of Fun and Function explains to Romper, "Hitting themselves can feed either the tactile — touch — receptors on the skin or provide ineffective proprioceptive/deep pressure input to the joints or muscles."
You can fix this by making sure they're getting the right type of sensory input, which can keep them more calm. Berger says, "Jumping on a trampoline can provide deep pressure input. Using a foam massage roller can provide both tactile and proprioceptive input. Additionally, compression vests, tactile mats, and sensory brushes also give sensory input to children."
3. They Don't Know How To Properly Express Their Anger
Most of the time, a toddler will hit themselves because they're angry, and that's the only way they know how to express it. This is especially true if they can't really verbalize yet. Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Romper, "Toddlers can't exactly verbalize their emotions or needs. As a result, when they become angry, they may hit themselves to express or relieve that frustration. Children often act out when they feel stopped by boundaries or limits. Some of them choose to act out through this form of self-harm."
As the parent, you have to teach them the correct way to express their anger.
4. They're Stressed
Hitting themselves can also be a reaction to stress. It doesn't seem like such a little person can feel stress, but they absolutely can. "Just like adults often struggle to cope with stress, toddlers can struggle as well," says Arzt. "Hitting can act as a release for reducing some of this stress." Again, as the parent, you have to teach them more effective ways of dealing with stress.
5. They're In Physical Pain
It's important to note that toddlers may hit themselves when something is hurting them. "I've seen toddlers hit themselves when they are struggling with physical pain like sunburns, ear infections, teething, and tummy aches," says Arzt. "If they keep hitting themselves in the same place, this could be a sign they're communicating where the pain is located."
If you notice this is happening, and you also notice they seem fussier than usual, definitely contact your pediatrician.
6. They Want Attention
Toddlers are super smart when it comes to realizing which of their behaviors will immediately catch your eye. "They may also be hitting themselves for attention because they know their parent will redirect or comfort them," says Wilkins. This doesn't mean you should ignore your toddler when they're hitting themselves since they could be harming themselves, but it is something to bring up with a behaviorist or pediatrician.
Alyssa Wilkins, board-certified music therapist specializing in early childhood development and autism
Occupational therapist Rivkie Berger of Fun and Function
Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist