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Some young children get so frustrated they bang their own heads against a wall or the floor. Parents worry the child will injure the brain. Some feel the head-banging is so severe they need an X-ray of the head.

Why would children would hurt themselves when they are angry at someone else or mad at the world? Part of this is developmental. A two-year-old child has the coordination to bang his head on the floor but may not yet be able to hit at another child.

I have watched toddlers in a play group and seen what happens when one child grabs a toy from another. The young child, perhaps one under 12 months, who has been robbed of the truck sits down and looks bewildered or starts to cry. An older toddler who is robbed may scream in frustration, fall to the floor in a tantrum and start kicking. It takes developmental maturity before the child figures out how to grab back the truck and starts hitting the robber (Gosh, I hate to use the words maturity and hitting in the same sentence!).

Young children have lots of reasons to get frustrated. The crawler, previously crib-bound, now has mobility which feels exhilarating and liberating but along comes Mommy who says he can’t crawl over to the stereo. Ergo, a tantrum. Preschoolers, who relishes their new-found autonomy, are asked to change their behavior (to stop doing something or start to do something) every 10-12 minutes. You too would throw a tantrum if your boss did this to you.

But no matter how empathetic we feel toward a frustrated child our job is the help the kid learn to deal with anger. There are three strategies that every mother of young children should know about: prevention, distraction, and removal. Try to prevent meltdowns by noting when they are likely to occur. Arrange for naps or snacks if the child is tired or hungry. Distract the frustrated child by bringing another toy or separating two toddlers who start to tangle. Remove the child heading for trouble from the scene.

If you have a head-banger, be as proactively protective as you can be. Carpet the play area and pad the chairs.

What should you do when the head-banging occurs? You have to decide whether to CONTAIN the tantrum or IGNORE it. In young children you can stop the head-banging by holding the child tightly in your arms. Turn the face away from yours so the child is not getting attention, just containment. Speak quietly but soothingly. “I know you are angry. I’m going to hold you tight until you feel better.”

However in older children there is a risk that attention the containment provides may lead to more tantrums for the express purpose of getting attention. You obviously want to avoid giving your child the idea that a tantrum leads to attention. So if your child has a tantrum because you won’t give him any more cookies, make sure the child is safe and walk away. When the child realizes there is no audience, the tantrum stops 99% of the time.