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17-Month-Old Butts His Head
Q: Our 17-month-old butts his head against the wall, floor, or other handy, hard objects when he's frustrated, which is often. Is this normal? Should we worry about it? How do we stop him?
A: Yes, it probably is normal as your toddler is at that difficult age of learning to control himself and the world around him. This is an important part of his life and he needs your guidance in dealing with it. He's trying to learn how to express his aggressiveness in appropriate ways. This isn't always easy because it can cause frustration and anger in him, hence temper tantrums.
Parents need to manage these in a calm, but firm manner. Necessary limits need to be set, but this behavior should not be accepted if it goes beyond your own limits. It is also important that parents model appropriate control in their own anger and aggressive feelings, so their children will follow appropriate behavior. A parent, who is upset at their child's loss of control of anger, may not see their own loss of control and, therefore, end up not helping their child in the long run. Punishing and lecturing aren't good remedies. On the other hand, when a child does successfully control himself, he should definitely be praised.
Realize also that once your child is in the throes of a temper tantrum, talking to him usually doesn't work. Make sure he's safe, but it's important for you to separate physically from him. It's best to ignore him and go about your business. Be consistent with your lack of response and the temper tantrums should diminish. Head bangers are looking for lots of attention, but never knock themselves unconscious. If your child gets no attention from a tantrum, he'll realize that this behavior does not get him any--where and hopefully the tantrums will become less frequent. Turning his attention to other activities before he loses control, or helping him to separate himself from others until he feels better, may also make a difference.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.