My child hits and bites himself. What should I do?

My child hits and bites himself. What should I do?

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If your child hurts himself on purpose, you're right to be concerned. First, ask yourself what may be behind these acts of self-punishment. Does your child turn the anger he feels toward you or another adult in his life on himself because he doesn't know how to express it any other way? Is he so frustrated by someone or something that a typical tantrum doesn't provide enough release? Could he feel so guilty about getting angry that he thinks he must punish himself for this emotion? Is it possible that someone is punishing him in this way?

A child who hits himself may have been hit, for instance, and one who bites himself may have been bitten back as punishment for biting other children. Don't jump to any conclusions, of course, but do keep this in mind as you talk to your child's caregivers and relatives about his behavior.

To glean more hints about what may be at the root of the problem, think carefully about when the self-punishment began and what was happening in your child's life at the time. Maybe you first noticed it when his father was away on a business trip. Or perhaps it first appeared the week he moved from the cozy confines of the toddler room at daycare to the noisy, boisterous preschool room — and away from his trusted and familiar caregivers. If you can pinpoint an obvious related event, you may be able to quickly break this disturbing behavior pattern. A long weekend spent playing with Daddy upon his return, for instance, or stepping back into the toddler program and then slowly working up to full days with his new caregivers may help a great deal.

Even if you can't lay the blame for your child's hitting and biting on any one stressor, you can take steps that will eventually make him less likely to turn his negative emotions on himself. So give him plenty of one-on-one attention to help him feel better about himself, and play noisy, physically active games together to help him burn off the steam that might otherwise erupt inward.

In the meantime, it's important to stop your child when he hurts himself. Bruises and bites aren't good for his body, of course. But more important, this behavior isn't good for his emotional development. Interrupt the biting or hitting by gently picking up your child or sitting down and gathering him into your lap. Next, convey to him as best you can that you won't let him hit and bite himself because you love him and it's your job to take care of him. Even if most of your words sail over his head, he'll get your point — and have the proof of your love and care that he may have been looking for.

Fortunately, extreme behaviors in children this age often end as suddenly as they start. But if your child is still purposely hurting himself after a week of intervention, discuss the issue with his doctor and don't let the doctor — or anyone else, for that matter — brush you off with a flip, "Don't worry; lots of kids do it." This may be true, but it doesn't mean you don't need to do anything about it.

If you get no help from the doctor and the self-harm goes on, talk to your child's teacher about what can be done to relieve any tensions at school. If things still don't improve, consider seeking help from a family therapist who can explore with you ways of helping your child deal with his emotions in a healthier way.

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