NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
A 2-YEAR-OLD’S FRUSTRATION
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. When he is frustrated, our 25-month-old boy hits himself or bangs his head. His mother and I don’t know whether this behavior is normal. One set of in-laws considers it bizarre.
Other families are experiencing the same thing, we learn from our Web research. We understand that at his age, our son has little or no outlet to express his frustration, but we are concerned that he may hurt himself. Our fear is that unless we deal with this behavior instead of “letting him grow out of it” or “ignoring him,” as others have advised us, he may continue it or redirect his anger to other children or adults.
A. When a child reaches the second year, he wants to be independent. “All by myself” is his new focus. When he can’t do what he wants to do, he feels frustrated.
And for a 2-year-old, the world is full of things he can’t do or isn’t allowed to do. Upset, he lies down, screams, bangs his head and cries out until his parents help him. He looks at them and continues the tantrum.
Many 2-year-olds bang their heads when they are frustrated. But I have never heard of a child who actually damaged himself this way.
Children who are otherwise developing on track usually grow out of such behavior. Meanwhile, you can help him deal with his frustration. This is the most important time for him to learn that he alone can control his impulses.
I wouldn’t ignore him in mid-tantrum. I would say, “I am here. I love you. When you are through, I want to pick you up and hug you. You are a great boy!” You can also reassure him that you know that he is learning how to calm himself, and that he will get the hang of it.
Notice what helps him settle down, besides the head banging and hitting. Gently remind him of what makes him feel better or offer him other things to soothe himself – a favorite teddy bear to squeeze, a blanket to stroke, his favorite song to listen to, or maybe a cold glass of milk.
Being available and ready to encourage him as he gains control is the best way to teach him that he can do so on his own. He will grow out of his negative period with a strong self-image and the knowledge that he can control himself.
In a situation where tantrums seem too frequent, it’s worth taking a look to see if stresses on the child, or on the whole family, can be reduced.
If you are concerned about your child’s development and behavior beyond the banging and hitting, then his frustration may be telling you that he needs to be evaluated to see if he needs extra help.
For example, children at this age who are not yet speaking are likelier to be frustrated and to act it out because they can’t use words to express themselves. That may be a signal that it’s time to talk to the pediatrician about a referral for speech and language evaluation.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.