When Toddlers Hurt Themselves

A parent sent me the question below on this week’s Q&A on Instagram and I would like to discuss it a bit further here.

"My 1yo smacks her face when she gets strong emotions of anger or is upset"

Children at this stage have the developmental need to put their emotions out, but not yet control of their impulses due to their immature brain. Imagine how they feel when all their will to do something, to experiment and test to make sense of the world, is stopped and they find themselves with all that energy not really knowing where to channel it.

Frustration is a constant for our littles, and we all know how hard it is to deal with it!

Most adults are still learning how to manage their own frustration, right?

The thing is, they have been around for so little time, that they have no idea about our expectations of their behavior (what we see as appropriate and not), so they will do things out of instinct - which is what we’ve been trying so hard to bring back as parents. We are being taught our of our instinct for so long, right?

So now that we see beyond the behavior, which could also be kicking, hitting, head banging, biting… we can start to focus on taking off our social shaped lens, including the fear we feel that our children will have a hard time adapting to society in the future, if they continue to behave in ways that are not socially accepted. When our fears and frustrations arise, it is so hard to have perspective about what’s happening. We end up adding more layers to the issue, feeling threatened and personally attacked by that tiny little person that brings up so much of our unresolved emotions to the surface. More common than not, we feel that we need to be firmer, punish or even teach them lessons to regain control. Responding this way may look effective, considering that we are big our children are little and they have a natural fear of us (physically and emotionally) even when it may seem that they don't, but overtime it may become a power struggle especially when we use attachment to bargain compliance. When children see us uncomfortable leading them, they can’t settle in the boundaries we establish. Have you had that experience before? When you don't trust the person leading who is leading?

At this point, when it seems like nothing works, some parents may resort to punishments. Unfortunately, this is the shortest way to distrust and even worse, the feeling that they cannot count on us for what they need the most: understanding.

When our children show us their big emotions (and impulses), they need understanding more than a fix. The fact that they trust us to share what they may also be scared of, it's a huge thing - way more than we credit ourselves for.

The best way we can help is not fearing them, or projecting our fears about their strong reactions in a future that’s not concrete. This perspective helps us not taking things personally, or in a way that we need to fix, stop, or change. That’s when we are able to share our calm, and help them move through the big ""emotion storm, sailing in calm waters instead of adding more waves to mix.

When our children hit us, we can block the behavior...

“You want to hit me. I won’t let you.” But then when they are hurting themselves, it requires a lot of our developed pre-frontal cortex to kind of recognize our impulse, control it and trust what our children are communicating. We want it to stop. That’s uncomfortable for us, because that’s not what most of us learned as children. We are not comfortable with our own emotions.

So back to the question, when the child is angry and smacking her own face...

We can say something like “Oh your are smacking your face. Here’s something you can smack”, maybe a pillow or stuffed animal that’s near in a way that’s natural. You don’t have to run around trying to avoid what’s happening because the goal is offer support, not to fix the emotion and impulses. You will do the same thing with head banging, slide a pillow under their head so it’s safer.

This way we communicate that we are open to their emotions, that they don’t need to stop feeling to make us more comfortable, but we will keep the guardrails up so they don’t seriously hurt themselves or anyone else around. We feel safe to share safety.

I know this is not easy! The way I approach child development and emotional intelligence is not from a "cake recipe" standing point, but more so a reflection so you can find your own words and ways that will help you feel comfortable in your role of leading respectfully.

Leading in a way we would like to be lead.

I hope this helps!


Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I love writing about Sleep, Parenting, Infants & Toddlers and Motherhood. I hope you feel safe, seen and respected here in this space.

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