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8-year-old punishing himself?

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 

I'm sort of at a loss as to how to deal with this. When my 8-year-old does something "wrong" (including things that happen accidentally, like breaking something or knocking something over) he immediately punishes himself physically by doing things like bang his head against the wall or pinch his own arm hard.  He will also destroy something he has made or likes, like a Lego set or some craft project, if it's nearby.  He will fly into a rage if I try to prevent him from doing this.


He once, for instance, pulled a wagon over the foot of the little sister of a friend accidentally, and to punish himself he started running the wheel over his own foot.  (She was fine.)


We have a pretty mellow household, I think, and he's usually a very easy kid.  We have never done physical punishment.  However, he gets very passionate about things he cares about (to the point that he can have a really hard time with people who don't share his feelings) and he is definitely a perfectionist.  He has also in the past actually pushed or kicked kids who did things like be cruel to bugs while he was watching, and he has also gotten physical with friends over other issues for brief periods of time, but this seems to be tempering a bit with age; he has been making himself go to his room or elsewhere to be alone when he is upset instead.  (He has had maybe 5 time outs in his entire life from me.)


He still gets REALLY angry, though, when he feels slighted or misunderstood, and I can tell it's taking everything he has to prevent himself from punching someone.   (I admit that I feel like this myself sometimes, and it's typically over political or ethical subjects... innocent.gif...he has heard me speak very passionately about various things)


I feel like he is wrestling with very big thoughts about Right and Wrong and hasn't quite found a way to cope with the feelings being "right" or "wrong" brings out. But what can I do about the self-punishing?? I'm actually a little worried sometimes that he will hurt himself banging his head against the wall. And I really don't want this to escalate and have him do something that ends up being really serious.  Ideas??

post #2 of 19

Have you tried to redirect him or give other suggestions (perhaps even a list) NOT in the middle of a situation, but when everything is calm?


I probably am against the grain here, but I don't see it as a bad thing that he feels that he must do *something* to counterbalance things when he hurts someone else.  However, what he's choosing indicates (assuming there's not something deeper going on) that he doesn't yet have the discernment/skills to make appropriate 'make it right' choices.


I think he's old enough that you have have an honest conversation and LISTEN to what he has to say.  Is it part of your family values/culture that people do not lay hands on or hurt others?  Maybe he needs to be told explicitly that it *includes* himself.  You could express appreciation for the fact that he feels sorry when an accident happens or if he makes a choice that is not the best choice;  but that injuring/hurting himself doesn't make it right, it might make it worse.


Then ask him to brainstorm with you to come up with strategies that don't involve hitting/hurting, make a list.  If he can't think of anything, you might need to assist with this.


For example, if he lashes out in verbal or physical violence at someone and regrets it he could (though he's clearly starting to do this on his own initiative anyway):

*go to his room/favorite chair/bed and take 10 slow deep breaths to calm down WITHOUT destroying or hitting anyone or anything.

*apologize, and ask the other person if there's something he can do to help soothe hurt feelings.

*walk away and ask another person to help him calm down/talk through it/help him work out an apology


If someone is accidentally hurt he could:

*stop and ask if they're okay

*get out the first aid kit or cold compress from the freezer and help the person as needed (as well as fetch an adult)


*do something "nice" for them, or help soothe them.




The thing is, while this is something that he will get better and better at over time, it really ISN'T acceptable that he destroy property and self-injure in response to a huge surge in feeling bad or surprised.  That can be scary as well as being indirectly violent towards people who have to witness that.  At 8 you really can't expect him to have mastered self control (and it's great that you don't expect this)--but on the other hand, in my opinion that IS an okay age to start explaining that hitting yourself around and violently trashing something is also violent towards others, and not going to be something that's a good way to solve the problem of how you're feeling long term.


So I would concentrate less on how you can get him to "stop punishing himself" and more on how you can teach/brainstorm with him more effective, less violent strategies for dealing with those powerful feelings than lashing out physically.  It's good that he's holding it in so he doesn't attack people who disagree/annoy him (it's not like 8 year olds don't do that on occasion, so this is a good thing that he's aware!), but it sounds like he's just keeping/swallowing the rage and then it explodes towards himself.  That is NOT a healthy or good pattern that you want him to get into.  I think it's okay to talk to him about that being harmful.

post #3 of 19
Thread Starter 

This is really helpful, thank you.  I hadn't thought about the violence-toward-yourself thing -- that's a really interesting perspective.  I will talk with him.  He has definitely scared his friends a couple of times with the intensity of his feelings (toward himself or the things he's wrecked).   And yeah, we are pretty Buddhist-crunchy around here : ) so he has certainly heard that harming living creatures is "bad."  (though it gives me a little pause that he has internalized it as "bad" -- it's easy to forget that children, no matter how smart they are, still tend to see things in black and white.)  I will remind him that he is a sentient being too....

post #4 of 19

I could have written nearly every word of the original post.  My son will be 8 in November.  He sometimes hits himself, calls himself stupid,  says things like 'I'm such a moron".  He pulls out his hair, pinches his own arms and hits his head.  It is scary and not a time when it would be possible to reason with him.

This does not happen often but comes in bursts.  It first happened around age 6.  Probably 6 months or more have gone by without incident but every now and then he starts again and will do this several times before it passes again.   I do not hit my kids and tend to react calmly to fights between them, mistakes, spills, etc.  I ask that they go get a towel to wipe up - I say it's no big deal, I try very hard not to place blame or make anyone feel that they are a burden or inflict any type of shame.  I never hit or do time outs.  My other two children (ages 5 and 9) do NOT do this and have never shown any sign of this type of behavior.


My son is excessively creative, has trouble with loud noises and other behavior issues that I have not had tested but that lead me to think he may be gifted.  I have only very recently begun to look into this but I am wondering if the punishing himself thing, the intense nature of the child - the intense creativity - have some common link - and if so it could be being 'gifted'.  I have always had this idea about him that he's 'different' and feel almost a sense of relief that maybe this is what it is and now can look into what this all means and try to begin to find some help.  I'm wondering if mabye your son has similar traits?  Just curious about this and also interested in other responses to this thread. 


Here is an excerpt from a website on gifted kids (http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/What_is_Gifted/learned.htm)

14. Perfectionism, sensitivity and intensity are three personality traits associated with giftedness.  They are derived from the complexity of the child's cognitive and emotional development.  According to Dabrowski's theory, these traits—related to overexcitabilities—are indicative of potential for high moral values in adult life.  The brighter the child, the earlier and more profound may be his or her concern with moral issues.  But this potential usually does not develop in a vacuum.  It requires nurturing in a supportive environment


Would love to see other responses if anyone has had this type of issue with their kids and how it resolved.



post #5 of 19
Thread Starter 

Oh yes, I am sure he is a very, very smart kid.  (A good friend of mine who knows a lot of kids his age was joking with him, saying "You're one of those smart kids, aren't you?  I mean, the REALLY smart kids.")  He has told me he is "different" from the other kids since he was about 4, and I know that he is. His dad is very bright and I was in gifted programs as a kid -- believe me, I totally relate to him. I have felt "weird" all my life, have always been able to "get" things much more quickly than most people, was labeled a "brain" in about 1st grade, IQ tests very high, definitely perfectionist tendencies on intellectual issues (not housecleaning though : ), etc etc etc.  So on some level I feel that I completely understand him.  I just don't want him to hurt himself, or take what he's thinking so seriously that he REALLY hurts himself when he realizes he was "wrong."


I do relaxation exercises with him and I have taken him to yoga classes which he LOVED.  Will do more of the yoga this fall when classes start up again,  For me it's important to NOT say "You don't really feel/ think that, stop it" or whatever -- I want to take him completely seriously.  So for me I would rather fully acknowledge what's going on than just pretend it's not happening. Sometimes he REALLY doesn't want to talk about it so I won't press him.


I did discuss this with him a little but after a minute or two he said he did NOT want to talk about it. So I stopped. However, yesterday he went to bang his head against the wall again (in response to a minor disagreement we had been having) and he said "I know you think I'm not supposed to do this but I'm going to anyway!" Then though he just did it for a second, moderated a bit -- so at least he's thinking about it.  I do have faith in him that he will figure it out-- but again I don't want him to really hurt himself in the meantime. 


Writing this now I am wondering if this isn't partly a way for him to regain power over the situation (in this case he was "wrong" and I was "right"  -- I just wanted him to get off my lap so I could wash my hands -- I had lip balm all over them from a tube that he had squished and dug out with a Lego spear -- he would not get up, would not, would not, so I just got up from under him -- not entirely gently, I'm afraid, which didn't help. I was frustrated and he was squashing me -- he fairly often will just not listen when you ask him to stop doing something annoying or physical to your body - instead he just does it more, and it really triggers something in me that is not good).  I should watch to see if the head-banging occurs only when there is some kind of break in our intimacy or when I become "in charge" all of a sudden after doing something nice like cuddling, as happened here.  It has to be experienced as an abrupt rejection. 


We did sit back down together on the chair after, finally, and cuddled again, after we played a game he likes where he pretends to be a lost abandoned hungry cold little animal and I find him and take him home.  (Gee, now it seems obvious, doesn't it?)

post #6 of 19

I just wanted to offer hugs OP. I have always done this as long as I can remember, but mine was totally done in secret. I would shut my fingers in my desk if I thought my handwriting was messy or go into a bathroom and hit myself for "mistakes". As a teenager this developed into cutting on my legs and other self harming behaviors. Even now, as an adult, when things feel out of control or my emotions get overwhelming, my first thought is to somehow cause pain. I guess I don't have any concrete advice other than I would strongly consider getting some outside help while he is young. I really wish I could have learned some coping mechanisms for these feelings when I was young. hug.gif

post #7 of 19
I would get some outside help for him.
post #8 of 19
Originally Posted by Susan Kunkel View Post

I would get some outside help for him.


post #9 of 19

Does he have trouble regulating himself in other situations? It sounds to me like he's overwhelmed with emotion and is trying to get a physical release from the intense emotions (and chemical surges that come with it). This is behavior that's sometimes seen in children with sensory processing issues. You might look at The Out of Sync Child or Sensational Kids to see if you recognize characteristics of your son. If you do, an assessment by an occupational therapist might help. I know that our son gained a lot in self-regulation skills through occupational therapy for his sensory issues.


If he doesn't have sensory issues or other issues with self regulation (for example, kids with ADHD have a lot of issues with self-regulation), then I don't know what to say. I've got a highly dramatic 7 year old and I've been looking for information/ways to teach her emotional regulation. There's not a lot out there for the school -aged child. The stuff I can find is either geared toward preschoolers (4-5 year olds) or quite clinical, e.g.,




If you can recognize that he's got intense emotions and help him find a reasonable outlet for them, I'm not sure outside intervention is needed. If it continues, I might be worried and call in outside help.

post #10 of 19
Thread Starter 

I think it's going to be OK.  He doesn't have ADHD (he actually has very good concentration) nor does he have sensory issues -- he is certainly tuned in to how other people are feeling, and he's extremely good & articulate about expressing his own feelings, but he isn't really at all like the very sensitive kids I've heard about.


We have been talking with him about it a lot and I think a big part of the problem is that he really hasn't know what else to do or say when he has very strong feelings.  So I have been doing some role-playing with him which seems to be helping (he asks me to do it with him now!) -- I pretend that he stepped on my foot, or that he knocked something of mine over accidentally, or something like that, and we practice him saying "I'm sorry, are you OK?"  He still can get upset about it, even while role-playing (he does have a tendency to be dramatic), but I can tell that it's getting better and it's only been a week or two.  We will just keep practicing.


A number of people have told me how they think he is very skilled at making conversation and talking with people.  I've heard him talk to my mom on the phone just incredibly sweetly and gracefully, asking her how she is, what she did today, telling her about what he did, etc etc -- he just does this on his own.  So we are also presenting this as another tool for being a human being  -- you have to learn how to talk with people when things go badly too, not just when things are good.  It's also helped to show him that punishing himself can actually be more upsetting to onlookers than whatever the incident was, and if he wants to make people feel better the key is to put the attention on THEM, not on yourself.  Punishing yourself does not magically make the other person feel better.  (In his mind it was necessary because it "evens things out.")


By the way, the finding-a-lost-creature game is a thing we invented when he was about 4 -- he still likes to play it now.  I think it makes him feel cozy and I don't think it represents any major psychological issue.  He just likes doing it.


So I don't think there's any need for outside help just yet.

post #11 of 19

Well, this is just $.02 worth of opinion, but on the good side I think it's great that you have a son who is so sensitive and has such a highly developed sense of justice and injustice. I'd be interested to see how/if he utilizes that when he grows up.


Not saying the behavior is ok....but those were just my first non-advice, non-judgmental thoughts about your OP. If it makes you feel any better. :)

post #12 of 19
Thread Starter 

Coffeegirl - thanks for that post.  I have actually thought about this a lot and it may affect where I send him to school later on -- there is a high school in the area with a "social justice" component to the curriculum, for instance (though I do have some issues with that kind of thing depending on how it's done -- it needs to be constructive, not just making everyone feel guilty), and there may be camps and whatnot that let him exercise his strong feelings about these things, put them to some use.  I do admit that a part of me really wants to hug him when he gets very upset when someone is being mean to bugs etc.! 


I have actually avoided exposing him to depressing facts about environmental destruction etc. because of this -- he will get plenty of it later on, and I know that he is going to be very strongly affected by it.  Even so, he's actually told me that when he grows up, he wants to "save nature."  This is completely unprompted by me.  So I definitely don't want him to get the idea that it's wrong to feel strongly about certain things!

post #13 of 19

I don't have any advice but just wanted to say that I hope I am the kind of mom that you seem to be.  You should be proud of yourself. 

post #14 of 19

I have an 8 year old girl and she does some of the same things.  At this age they're feeling so much.  They're annoyed with themselves and angry with their constant (as they see it) mistakes.  I've taken to hugging her when I see her acting out in this way.  I don't know if it helps her, I do know that I can feel her tense little body relax.  Maybe a positive touch can calm a little soul in turmoil. 

post #15 of 19


Originally Posted by Agatha_Ann View Post

I just wanted to offer hugs OP. I have always done this as long as I can remember, but mine was totally done in secret. I would shut my fingers in my desk if I thought my handwriting was messy or go into a bathroom and hit myself for "mistakes". As a teenager this developed into cutting on my legs and other self harming behaviors. Even now, as an adult, when things feel out of control or my emotions get overwhelming, my first thought is to somehow cause pain. I guess I don't have any concrete advice other than I would strongly consider getting some outside help while he is young. I really wish I could have learned some coping mechanisms for these feelings when I was young. hug.gif

This is me, too. I really really wish my parents would've gotten some help for me as a child. Not so much therapy as much as I would've like them to help me learn other ways to channel my anger. I think some outside help or some anger management help would be useful in this situation. I feel for you, though. Its a scary place to be a parent.


post #16 of 19

Oh wow, my girl begs me to play games like we used to when she was little.  She loves hand puppets.  Maybe they just need us more than we think right now.

post #17 of 19
Thread Starter 

I agree that even though a kid is 8, they still really need you!  They are starting to understand and see so many things that they just didn't before, and it is really a lot to process and understand.


I wanted to say that I do think things are getting a LOT better since my son and I started talking about this.  (Something I remember being especially effective was me telling him stories about mistakes I'd made or stupid things I had done! He was laughing and laughing and I was getting this major feeling of relief from him....I really do think he was assuming that when you get older, you stop making mistakes.)


Last week some incident happened and I could tell it was the kind of thing that would trigger the self-punishment stuff, and instead he said, "Mommy, I don't feel like doing it anymore!"  I really don't think he was saying it just to make me happy either -- he was expressing that he really did feel different.  Now, he still does things sometimes (like bite his fingers, or try to wreck his Lego set) but it's with much more self-consciousness, if that makes sense.  We also practiced saying "Are you OK?" many times (he asked me to do it with him, even) and now he says it without being asked to say it. 


He has even started making little jokes about it.  Yesterday he pointed to a wall in the kitchen and said "Mommy, this is the hardest wall in the house and that's why I like to use it!" while smiling.  "The other ones are too bouncy!"  So make what you will of all this, but I do think the issue has been diffused a lot and that he is learning new ways to cope.  I mean, we'll see what happens when something big comes along (there hasn't been anything major at all lately), and he certainly still has the impulse to punish himself, but I do feel the problem has been modified a lot, and it really hasn't taken that long -- just a few weeks of talking about it and practicing new ways to deal with strong emotions.  So keeping fingers crossed.

post #18 of 19

That is really good to hear.  It's amazing what we can accomplish if we talk and listen.  The hardest part is that it takes time.  Good luck to you both.

post #19 of 19

OP you are really brilliant.


I love this

 " Something I remember being especially effective was me telling him stories about mistakes I'd made or stupid things I had done! He was laughing and laughing and I was getting this major feeling of relief from him....I really do think he was assuming that when you get older, you stop making mistakes.)"


I am going to try it with my DS.  Thank you!


I won't be as quick to fix this problem as he only does it once in a while.  Maybe once a month but then several days in a row.  Then it stops again for a month or two or three. 


I did follow your advice last time and explain to him that if he does something wrong that he thinks is causing ME pain (usually spilling a drink or something seriously insignificant like that) -rather than his usual, "Oh I'm so dumb, I'm so stupid" (said with agony), hit self - pinch self, pull out own hair...) that he should not steal the show and ask ME if I'm OK.  If he thinks he's hurt someone to simply apologize, fix the problem and not focus on himself but rather on making sure the other person is fine and or problem is fixed.  


But this oversimplifies it b/c he is really agressive and upset and for lack of a better way to put it - out of control.  So me 'talking' - isn't so easy.  Just getting through these incidents is rough and wild.  I'm trying to make him not hurt himself and there's no reasoning. 


Honestly I do get mad at him when he's doing it.  I have yelled 'Stop it., I can't stand to see you do this to yourself".  many a time.  and physically held back his arms from pulling out his hair. 


So a strategy for cooled off times is asking him to ask me if I'm OK - telling him about silly dumb things I've done.  But what about a strategy for just plain getting through the incident when there is no talking/listening?  And I DO try to hug him and I do tell him he has done nothing wrong and he is an amazing person, and I tell him I love him and I tell him that I love him just as much when he's upset/angry/spills a glass of water/you name it as I do at any other time.  


Also I do not hit, do time outs, and am a believer in no rewards or punishments so he has never been 'punished'.  except of course where I've faltered... but this is super rare and never involved physical punishments. 


Am going to research anger management in kids.  My psychologist also recommended researching guilt in kids.  (DS thinks it's his fault that XH and I divorced).  I have two other kids ages 5 and 9 who do not exhibit ANY of this. 


OP you are a GREAT mom from what I can see here!  I would love to hear more about how you are dealing with this.  And thanks for posting this thread. 






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