Q&A: toddler banging head and grandparents not child-proofing

Anne writes in with this double-whammy:

"First question: My boy is 14 months old and has been walking for a while.  He's very steady on his feet, can run a little bit and is always trying (and usually succeeding) to climb things like couches etc.  The problem is if I tell him "no" and remove him from a precarious situation or if he is trying to do something and he fails after a few attempts, he will get so frustrated that he throws himself on the ground, face down, and bangs his forehead against the floor.  Sometimes he will stand up and bang his head on the wall or anything else he can find.  Sometimes there is a red mark and sometimes he actually grazes his skin because he bangs his head so hard.  I'm worried he will hurt himself.  I know he's frustrated but I'm not sure what I can do to help him cope.  Is this normal behaviour?  Is it just a phase?

My second question has to do with a visit to grandparents.  We only visit them a few times a year because of distance.  Our next trip is our first one since the boy started walking.  They have some very steep stairs in their house but are not willing to put in a gate because they don't want to ruin the wallpaper and beam on their stairway.  The stairs are very steep and several adults have fallen on them in the past.  When we try to talk about it we are told "they'll think of something" and "we'll just watch him the whole time" but they absolutely refuse to install a hardware mounted gate. My 13 month old tries to climb and holds onto the gates we have and he has pulled over pressure gates we had been using (not at the tops of stairs) and he is very fast.  I will already be on high alert for our entire visit because their property fronts onto water and there is no fence and they have a big dog.  How can we overcome the gate issue?  Any ideas?"

Until I opened your email, Anne, I had completely forgotten about the head-banging toddler stage. I think memory must be merciful, because all the wailing and flinging and forehead bruises and clunking had slipped away into the ether, although they came right back as I read your story.

In my experience, the head-banging phase was just that--a (fortunately) brief phase that passed. I say "brief," but what I really mean is that every day felt like an eternity of my son bruising his own cranium, but then it stopped and he moved on to the next thing. (I can't remember what that next thing was, but it may have been gagging himself with his fist, head-butting my chin, or scaring the cat. I am really not such a huge fan of young toddler behavior. Give me a Terrible Two instead any day.)

I think this is yet another one of those things kids do when they can't express themselves verbally.  That age has such deep receptive language and cognitive ability, but they just don't have the ability to verbalize their feelings yet even if they can coagulate them. So the only thing left is to just freak out and bang their heads or kick or scream or do the arched back thing or limp-noodle thing, or any of the other Toddler Greatest Hits we all know and hate.

So, yeah, normal. Bizarre and kind of awful, but normal.

There are a couple of things I can think of to help him. The first is to teach him sign language if you're not already, which will help him communicate more easily throughout the day. The second is to give him a big, tight hug when he gets upset to help him physically manage the tension in his body. While you're hugging him, you can also verbalize for him what he's probably feeling. "I bet you're really angry right now because you couldn't climb up on the table. It makes you feel mean! And angry! And it makes you want to bang your head!" That way he'll know you understand what he's feeling and he won't feel as strong a need to bang his head.

The other thing you could try is to see if you can help him do a "re-do" of whatever it was that he couldn't do. If he was trying to jump off the couch, you could come up with something else that he is allowed to do, like jumping up and down on the floor. Suggest it to him and do it with him. Or if he was trying to climb some playground equipment but couldn't quite do it, ask him if he wants to do it with you, and then help him over the rough spots so he can do it with you. This isn't something that will always work, since sometimes he'll just be way too riled up, but if he can get in the habit of stepping back and trying again when he can't do something instead of getting angry and frustrated, that will be a skill that will help him for the rest of his life.

To your second question: Stay in a hotel. I'm totally serious about that. Big dog + open water + unsecured stairs + grandparental lack of concern for any of these three things = potential death for your child. Even if nothing happens, you aren't going to be able to relax for a single second of the trip. You didn't specify whether it's your parents or your partner's parents. Whichever one of you is related to the grandparents in question needs to be the one to break it to them that it's just not safe for you three to stay with them, but you'll be happy to come over for visits and to meet them at other places in the area. And that in a few years when the stairs and open water aren't an issue you'll be able to stay with them, but it's just not safe this year. If they object, keep repeating the phrase "It's just not safe" until they offer to install the stairway gate and help rig up some kind of outdoor enclosure (to contain either your child or the big dog) or they accept that you'll be at a hotel.

People stay at hotels so they don't have to worry about their kids breaking Lladro figurines or inhaling secondhand smoke for 48 hours, neither of which are as dangerous as a staircase that has caused adults to fall or a big dog (who might get hinky around a scurrying toddler s/he's not used to) or open water. I cannot believe the grandparents aren't concerned about this. It's going to be an uncomfortable conversation, but easier than the one that could happen at the hospital.

In a few years the stairs won't be an issue, and the dog won't be an issue, and you can teach your son to swim so the water will only be minorly terrifying. But this year you're staring right at the dictionary definition of "deathtrap." So unless one of the readers can offer a sure-fire solution to the stairs, open water, and big dog, you can look forward to a pleasant stay at a local hotel.