Son Is Hitting Himself

Updated on August 30, 2010
K.D. asks from Madison, WI
11 answers

My four year old hits himself when he gets upset about something. He punches himself in the eyes and scratches his ear/face. Does anyone else have experience with dealing with this behavior?

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answers from Portland on

This is pretty common. Kids know they are not allowed to hit others or throw valuables no matter how upset they feel, and they haven't yet learned healthier ways to express negative feelings. I find with my grandson that it helped tremendously to have puppets/toys act out various scenarios, with me coaching them on how to talk about their feelings. Before long, my grandson was able to do the coaching, and his self-attacks stopped completely as he used the techniques in his own moments of anger or frustration.

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answers from Columbus on

Yes. You have to ask your self if this is a frequent behavior or if he is just trying it out to see if he can get to you? Many kids try this on to see if thier parents will give in to keep them from being hurt. They have hit the developmental stage where they know that you really love them and that it hurts you to see them hurt, so they are giving a new manipulation a go. If it does not work or get a rise out of you, typcial kids quit it.

If it is frequent, and he does it even though it hurts, and you see it over a sustained period of time; or, you also see other behaviors that you are concerned are not typical; or you have ever seriously questioned his behavior and development otherwise, then take him to see a Developmental Pediatrican or a Board Certified Child psychiatrist. This is called an SIB (self injurous behavior) and it can be part of a more global issue, but can also be treated alone.


That is so cool! Peg actually did some of the activiities children will do in play therapy for severe SIB's! Treatment at this age usually consists of learning a new behavior to replace the old one. Some children will need this in a theraputic setting.

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answers from Washington DC on

Focus on not critisizing or scolding - clearly he feels bad enough. Instead focus on giving him alternative. "I know you feel bad now. Can you workd on taking a deep breath and we can sit quietly until you feel better and want to talk?" or " I understand that made you angry. Please use some words to tell me what you are feeling. You can say, Mom, I am upset you took my toy away. Or Mom, I said I was sorry why are you mad?" Speak for him and he will gradually learn to use word and actions which ar emore positive. And, after an "episode" when he is calm, talk about the hitting. "It really makes me sad tha tyou hit your head before. I don't want you to hurt yourelf. Next time, what could you do differently when you feel so frustrated." I suppose you could direct him to things like hitting a piillow or something, but I think it is better to break the physical reactions. He needs to learn better skills so he doesn't feel like hitting when he is angry/sad/frustrated. Poor little guy!

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answers from Charlotte on

Everyone's answers are great, K.. About the sensory processing disorder, you would see an occupational therapist about that, one who has experience in that specialty.

Best to you,



answers from Minneapolis on

As a child therapist, my first recommendation would be to help him build a "feelings vocabulary" during neutral times, when he is engaged with you, to use when he is upset, frustrated, scared, or even excited or happy. Then pretend he is feeling a certain emotion and have him say "I'm really angry right now because...! (or whatever the emotion you are acting out is)" Remember that even at 4, children don't always know what they're feeling or why they are feeling the way they do, so they benefit from gentle, calm guidance in this area. And although self-injury is upsetting to look at, it is important to stay calm yourself, as your son will feed off your agitation, as well as, like Martha mentioned, learn that his behavior gets a rise out of you (manipulating you) which is also reinforcing to him. If he needs a transitional period while he practices voicing his feelings, let him know, "Hurting yourself won't get you what you want. If you need to use your body to calm down, you may stomp, lay and kick the floor, punch this pillow (whatever is acceptable to you)."

If this is the first behavior like this you are seeing, it is unlikely a sensory disorder, but it affects his ability to assimilate in social settings as he gets older, its worth him getting screened.



answers from Dothan on

Yea, kids just need alternative outlets for emotional stress. Treat his actions with care and teach him other ways to cope. It will take time but he will change, took me about a year with my daughter



answers from Boca Raton on

I like the responses but I would also consider/read about sensory processing disorder (SPD). He may be sensory seeking to cope with overwhelming emotions . . .

Good luck.



answers from Cleveland on

I am sorry to see you going through this! Perhaps you all should try positive reinforcement. I hear this works wonders for children who have this type of behavior. Focusing on the good things always makes the bad things seem less of a problem...Good luck!



answers from Omaha on

My son did the same thing- but at a little older age, we talked about using our hands for helping not hurting- just as we do with others. And he either out grew it or got over it, but it finally went away.


answers from Rochester on

I would probably start redirecting him as soon as he seems upset. If he is upset about something like being in trouble, losing a privilege, or some other unavoidable upset, keep it simple and tell him he can sit in [some safe designated space] until he is calmer. He can be upset because that is normal, but he should be gentle with himself as well. I don't have experience with this with a 4-year-old, but my 2-year-old has recently started hitting his head (just one or two smacks) or slapping his own hand if he is angry about something. Honestly though, unless he is causing himself serious injury I probably wouldn't worry about it too much. You can always give your pediatrician a quick call if it is really worrying you.



answers from San Diego on

My son (nearly 4) also hurts himself when he is upset. He often hits himself on the head, bangs his head on the floor, or bends his fingers very far back. For us, this is part of a bigger issue about throwing temper tantrums and controlling his emotions.

We are working with a behavioral therapist about this. He also goes to OT. My son is pretty verbal and can articulate when he is upset, sad, angry, etc. But in the moment, he gets very overwhelmed and seems to have a very difficult time not throwing tantrums. The bending his fingers back appears to be his attempt at doing something less demonstratively self-injurious than the hitting and banging, but it's just as upsetting when we see it.

What is starting to help with the tantrums (and thus the self-injury) is a combination of stern discipline and more positive discipline. We prep him a lot for situations that have traditionally been problematic (mostly playdates), give him alternate scenarios for how he can deal with difficult situations (tell him to count until he feels calmer, walk/run away from a kid that is getting too close, ask for help), things like that. But I also make sure there is a consequence (punishment) when he has a tantrum so that he knows that he is not behaving in an acceptable manner. He understands it all cognitively. It's more a matter of putting it into practice. He has had some very good days lately, but he has also told me that it was hard for him to keep his temper. I'm hoping it will get easier for him the more he does it.

Good luck. It is so awful to see your little one hurt himself. If our behavioral therapist comes up with any other suggestions that work for us, I will let you know.

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