Q.  My 2-year-old son is having trouble giving up playtime. A while ago, I noticed when I ask him to stop playing so we can leave the house or eat or go to bed, he throws a tantrum. So, I was just letting him tire himself out. But recently, he started banging his head during his tantrums. I’m worried he’ll hurt himself. What should I do?

A.  We often expect our kids to switch quickly from one activity to another. This “quickly” expectation is very hard for toddlers. Your son is communicating the way he knows, by actions and not words. His tantrums say, “I can’t do this ‘quickly’ thing.” When you ignore that, he gets frustrated and resorts to banging his head.

While it’s common for 2-year-olds to struggle with transitions, lots of older kids and even adults also struggle (for example, stopping work on the computer or stopping in the middle of a video game). We don’t generally bang our heads, because we have words. We can say, “Give me 10 minutes.” So, what should you do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Give a warning. Some parents use a clock and say, “When the big hand gets to the top, you need to stop playing and get in the car.” Some use a countdown, with warnings at 10 minutes, then five minutes, then two minutes. Adjust the timing to what works for your child. Warnings are one of the best ways to get a smoother transition.
  2. Offer help. You could make a game of putting away the toys, for example, “Let’s see which of us can put away five toys faster.”
  3. Let your child take something to his next activity. It could be what T. Berry Brazelton, a renowned pediatrician and child expert, called a “lovey.” A lovey is that stuffed animal or blanket the child wants with him much of the time, and especially when stressed. Or it could be a small toy from the activity he’s leaving behind.
  4. Reward good behavior. This can be tangible, like a smiley-face sticker, a small treat given (ideally) immediately after good behavior and with verbal approval such as, “You got ready to go really fast this time.” Don’t overuse phrases like “good job,” which quickly becomes meaningless.
  5. Squat down close to your child. When giving warnings, being at the child’s level and close by feels less threatening and works better than yelling from across the room.
  6. Offer choices. This works to give the child a feeling of control, such as, “Which do you want to put away first, your cars or your other toys?”
  7. Establish rituals. Posting a daily schedule with pictures can help. Every morning, you can talk about the activities of the day and even role-play what transitions will look like. Bedtime rituals work well to entice kids to drop what they’re doing and get in bed for a story.
  8. Tell a cautionary tale. Make up a story about a boy who bangs his head and has to wear a helmet to avoid having dents in his head. Ask your child to contribute ideas for getting the boy to stop banging his head. If the head banging continues, you can resort to putting a helmet on your son to protect his head. You can explain that when the head banging stops, he won’t have to wear it. He’ll soon be ready to give it up.

Your 2-year-old is trying to gain some control over his life. The reason you hear “No” so often from a 2-year-old is to tell you that you can’t control everything. It says, “I’m a separate person with ideas of my own.” Eventually, your child will start using more words to tell you what he wants and how he feels.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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