It is not especially uncommon for a child to bang his head in the context of a temper tantrum, however it is important to take head-banging seriously. Given the potential for injury, it is, of course, always advised to ask your pediatrician about your child’s head-banging. Head-banging may be “inadvertent,” like when your child protests by dropping to the floor or arching backward. Head-banging may be considered “minor” if it occurs without sufficient intensity to result in injury, but this, of course, can be a nerve-racking, subjective judgment call for any parent to make. Head-banging may occur repeatedly, on a hard or sharp surface, and/or with velocity that can result in injury. Head-banging also may occur without readily apparent provocation (e.g., as a soothing or self-stimulatory behavior).
There are obvious differences in the type, degree, and severity of head-banging observed. There is great variability with regard to a parent’s tolerance and preferences about behavior management strategies for head-banging. There are also some obvious issues (e.g., “inadvertent” or “minor” head-banging may be ignored, while potentially self-injurious head-banging must be proactively addressed in the name of health and safety). Again, given the potential for injury, it is always advised to speak to your pediatrician about your child’s head-banging. Here are some behavior management guidelines that may be useful:
Avoid any readily identifiable antecedents to your child’s head-banging. For example, if a child head-bangs when he is tired, hungry, or frustrated, his parent would be well-advised to keep the child well-rested, well-fed, and relatively free of unnecessary frustration. Of course, any parent even remotely familiar with a path called “Reality Road” knows that avoidance of head-banging antecedents is a noble, but often unrealistic goal.
It is kind to help your child understand the consequences of his head-banging (e.g., it hurts, he does not get his way when he bangs his head), however, another little trip down “Reality Road” indicates that while teaching positive behavior and concepts is never a “bad” thing to do, it is often ineffective in the “heat of the moment.” Teaching alternative, positive behaviors and the consequences of one’s own actions may be most effective before or a while after the actual head-banging. By trying to “teach” in the throes of the head-banging incident, you run the risk of injury and you run the risk of inadvertently reinforcing your child’s head-banging with your attention.
To ignore head-banging is indeed a “calculated risk” and not for every parent. If ignoring is the option of choice, it is important to first ensure your child’s safety before ignoring (e.g., move him to a carpeted area, etc.).
It may be counter-intuitive to “punish” your child when he is so distressed as to bang his own head, but remember that, by definition, “punishment” simply refers to decreasing a negative behavior (in an immediate, consistent, powerful, and humane manner). Some techniques for punishing head-banging may include time-out and/or physically containing a child until he no longer represents a threat to himself, others, or property. Obviously, a “head-banger” will give great resistance, so please review in great detail the section on “Time-out” in the previous chapter, and the information on “containment” at the end of the section just above entitled “Hitting (of others by a child)”.