Understanding Head Banging In Children

What is happening inside my child’s body? It is not uncommon to see a child walk over to the wall and bang his head repeatedly. Such banging is usually rhythmic and delib­erate. This behavior is simply called head banging.

There is no consensus on why some children bang their heads, but one theory is that the behavior stimulates the vestibular sys­tem, the same mechanism in the inner ear that controls balance. Other rhythmic behaviors, such as body rocking and head rolling, are thought to be similar because they, too, stimulate the vestibu­lar system. Alternative explanations for head banging range from boredom to self-stimulation (similar, in fact, to masturbation).

Head banging can occur in isolation, or it can be accompanied by other soothing behaviors such as thumb sucking. Often the banging is rapid. Children tend to pick hard surfaces, such as a wall or crib, on which to bang their heads.

A completely different type of head banging occurs when a toddler is having a temper tantrum. Sometimes, out of frustration or anger, a child will bang his head. If your child does this and then sees you react with a wince or an expression of concern, he is more likely to repeat the behavior. In this instance, the head banging is entirely volitional and will continue if it attracts atten­tion. Your reaction — even if it is negative and you try to get him to stop the behavior — provides attention and therefore rein­forces the head banging.

Many parents worry that head banging is a sign of develop­mental problems. In fact, head banging is seen in all types of chil­dren. Yes, the behavior can be present among children with developmental delays. But it also appears among developmen-tally normal children. It alone should not be considered a diagnostic sign of developmental issues.

The other concern related to head banging is injury. Because head bangers tend to bang hard and fast, you may worry that your child is going to injure himself. It is actually quite rare for head bangers to cause serious injury. Although the behavior looks painful, a child will actually limit himself if he experiences pain. It is highly unlikely that a child will bang his head to the point of a concussion.

Head banging is more common in younger toddlers (under age two) than in older ones. The behavior should go away by the time a child is two to three years old.

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