DEAR MR. DAD: My daughter is 20 months old and has developed a disturbing behavior. When we tell her she can’t do something or she can’t have something she wants she will either sit down and bang her head on the wall or lie on the floor and hit her head on the floor. I refuse to even acknowledge this behavior and she never gets what she wanted because I don’t want to “give in.” Friends and family say she is just throwing a tantrum but I’m concerned that uncorrected she could end up as a teenager cutting herself or some other kind of self-destructive behavior. Am I overreacting? What can I do to discourage this behavior?

What a great question. Interestingly, about one in five toddlers does some head banging. The good news is that (a) the kids rarely do any long-term damage to themselves – at that age they stop when something hurts, and (b) they usually outgrow it by age 3 or 4. Fortunately, there’s no reason to worry that head banging now will lead to teenage cutting or any other self-destructive behavior.

In many situations, head banging is the result of a disconnect between what a child wants to say and what she actually can say. In your daughter’s case, the more verbal she gets, the less she’ll need to act out her frustrations by smacking herself.

As far as how to respond, your friends and family are right. Try to ignore these episodes. If you rush to stop your daughter, you’ll be giving her exactly what she wants: your attention and a way out of doing whatever you asked her to do. If you have trouble dealing with a screaming child, make sure she’s safe, and leave the room (you may want to keep an eye on her from someplace where she can’t see you.) She may take things up a notch for a few seconds but she’ll settle down as soon as the audience is gone.

Finally, it’s very important that you do two things after the tantrum is over. First, give your daughter a big hug and remind her that you love her. Second, make sure she puts her toys away or does whatever it was that she didn’t want to do before.

Again, your daughter is probably not going to hurt herself. But if she ends up with cuts or bruises, it’s worth a trip to the pediatrician. And just to be on the safe side, it’s worth mentioning all this to her doctor. Head banging is sometimes (although rarely) a symptom of autism.

Armin Brott is the author of many best-selling books on fatherhood. His new DVD, “Toolbox for New Dads,” has just been released. Find resources for fathers at or by e-mailing [email protected] Try DaddyCast, his new, twice-weekly podcast (

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