Why Do Little Kids Self-Harm?

You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook group.

So what’s our topic today? There’s a little bit of backstory.

Every day in the Parenting Posse, which is my free peer-support Facebook group for parents of kids under age 6, we have a daily prompt. It gets posted every weekday- I find they help us get to know each other as members, and it gives a low barrier or entryway for new members to start posting. So last Tuesday- the prompt was “what does your child do that’s irritating you?” and a member, Katelyn, responded that her son keeps hitting himself when he doesn’t get what he wants and it was really driving her up the wall because it didn’t make any sense to her. And I’ve talked about this in dribs and drabs with various members since I opened the group in 2014, but I wanted to do an actual class on it because it’s not a topic we discuss really openly generally, and I want to put an end to that. Usually, when parents observe their kids self-harming, they’re ashamed, or they feel like they’re doing something wrong so they tend not to talk about it. But there’s a reason little kids- we’re talking toddlers and preschoolers- self-harm, and once you see it for what it is- it’s a pretty easy fix in the grand scheme of things.

This is generally how it plays out: you’re giving your child a direction, or you’re denying them something they want, or you’re trying to get them to make a transition, and usually they start by refusing. Then they escalate to screaming, and finally,  they escalate to self-harming by hitting themselves, biting themselves, head butting the wall, scratching themselves, etc. Kids can get pretty creative about this. And what you may have observed is that over time the precursor behaviors- the refusal and the screaming have diminished and they’re skipping straight to self-harm.

The first thing we need to understand: for young children, this is a sensory strategy. What happens when we get upset? For me- my heart starts to pound, I can hear it in my ears, I get very, very cold or very very hot- depending on whether I’m sad or mad. My throat goes dry. I get a lot of pressure behind my eyes. My stomach clenches. And 9 times out of 10 I have the urge to hit something. That’s how extreme anger or sadness manifests itself in MY body. That’s how it physically feels to me. Now, imagine that feeling in a little kid of 2 or 3 or 4.  It would be overwhelming. And as a toddler or preschooler- who is still not that strong in the whole emotional control area of executive functioning, or in a 1-year-old- doesn’t HAVE any executive functions yet… it could easily be overwhelming to the point where you don’t know how to cope.

When this happens with auditory input when there’s a cacophony of sound that you can’t escape and it’s overwhelming to the point where you can’t cope- you scream. Because the sound coming from your own body is always going to be louder than anything else around you, so it’s going to drown it out. That’s why Moms have such a hard time stopping yelling when their kids are all talking over each other with demands and you’re trying to focus on all these competing voices- not just because yelling gets people’s attention, which it does. Not just because it makes you louder than everyone else, which it also accomplishes. And not just because it shows you mean business- also a reinforcing factor. But because- on an auditory sensory level- it’s the only way to cope. When you yell, as loud as it is to everyone else, it’s even louder in your own ears. It creates an overwhelming singular sound to focus on. And that gives you relief from all the competing sounds that were assaulting you before. This is why when young children are learning to soothe themselves to sleep- they often scream themselves to sleep. It’s called audio filtering. You drown everything else out so you can focus your mind on one thing. It’s why white noise is so helpful in inducing sleep.

The same concept only takes it out of the auditory and apply it to the physical. When you’re feeling so many conflicting things in your body- usually including shame- because most kids KNOW they aren’t supposed to be reacting this way, and the fact that they feel the physical manifestations of those emotions even though they’re trying to control them and react appropriately, causes more emotions and physical manifestations of those emotions and it’s a self-perpetuating cycle… The instinct is to create ONE overwhelming physical sensation to focus on and “drown” the rest of them out.

So for instance if I’m feeling fiery rage and my throat is dry- which is like the worst feeling in the world, and I have pressure behind my eyes, and my gut is clenching, and my teeth are clenching, and I’ve got the urge to hit something but I know I’m not supposed to hit something- I might bite my cheek so hard I make myself bleed. Or I might smack myself in the face. Or I might bite my arm really hard. Because then I’m focused on the ACTUAL PAIN vs all these psychosomatic symptoms that are overwhelming me. And then since there’s only ONE thing to focus on, I’m able to focus and calm myself down.

It’s the same reason- only obviously more extreme- as teenagers who cut themselves.

So what can we do about it? If your child is doing this, obviously you want to nip it in the bud before they become that teenager who cuts themselves.

The first thing is to give them something they are ALLOWED to do to express that frustration or overwhelm.

This is why I have a punching bag in my basement. Because I feel the need to hit something when I’m angry- and obviously there are very few things that are acceptable to hit, but a punching bag is one of them. My sons don’t fall far from the tree- they’re also a bit slap happy so they use it too. If your child is a biter- you might want to grab them a firm chewy tube. Or if they’re a headbutter- redirect them to their mattress or a pillow. Try to look at what they’re already doing and figure out how you could modify it so that it’s both safe and socially acceptable.

The second thing is to work on their emotional control executive skills.

There are MANY ways to do this, and I have a whole unit with over 40 games, activities, and interactions that will improve your toddler or preschooler’s emotional control in the Brain Skills Play Blueprint, which is my flagship program. BUT- since enrolment for that is currently closed, there are some nuggets in my Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour from that section- and you can grab those by going to prnt.link/scripts and it’s linked in the description.

The third thing is to give them the words- give THEM a script- to help them communicate to you that they’re overwhelmed.

For my kids that’s “Mama, I’m over it.” When I hear “I’m over it” I know that my kids are just about ready to blow and I need to either back off and give them some space or redirect them. Kind of like a code phrase. I don’t use “I’m sad, or I’m mad, or you’re upsetting me”... because typically those are things your kids will say to others- and if they don’t react how you react when they’re just having everyday conversations- it’s going to be confusing and possibly more upsetting for them. So “I’m over it” is what I’ve taught my kids to say when they’re just DONE. And when I’m giving them coping strategies and I’m working on their emotional control- that’s how we talk about it. These things help when we’re sad, angry, or over it. And that I find helps them distinguish between being sad, angry, or that hitting the wall overwhelmed feeling.

I know that, as a parent, if your child does this- you’re probably panicking a little bit and that this is scary. But the best thing you can do is meet it head and pour on the support NOW- because it’s fairly easy to tackle when they’re little. Give them some coping methods, heap on the emotional support, teach them how to ask for help, and continue to support that open communication and open exchange of emotion. If they DO self-harm, redirect them to a safe way to express themselves, and model being gentle with their bodies. Let’s front-load them with these skills so that we never go down that scary path when they’re older and have WAY more resources open to them that can do REAL harm. And of course- if you’re EVER worried about your child’s ongoing mental health, the best person to talk to is a healthcare professional. Never be ashamed of reaching out and asking for help, and don’t shut up until someone listens. Your kids are worth it.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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