When Toddlers Scream

hi, janet.  i’m a former actor, current Ph.D. student and mom of a 15-month-old.  your website and your advice have been really inspirational as his father and i navigate early parenthood . . . mostly joyfully, although we get as tired as anyone.  i thought this question might have relevance for your audience, so if you get a chance to consider it, many thanks. 

Miles is a pretty easy going kid, and really loves to communicate.  now that he has some language (and signs), his exuberance at making his thoughts and wishes known is growing by the day.  when we “get it”–like if he wants water, and we get him some–he grins and laughs, and starts nodding enthusiastically while he says, “yeah!  yeah!”

i’m writing because recently he’s started screaming.  like, really loud, high pitched screams.  often it’s the first sign of any discomfort or dissatisfaction–like, he’s in his high chair, about to munch on some toast, and suddenly–screaming.  i’ve been looking him in the eye and saying, calmly, “that’s too loud for inside.  it’s hurts my ears.”  or, “i can tell you’re upset, but that’s too loud.  tell me what’s wrong?”  it’s so unlike his newly expressive language; i can’t tell if he’s just experimenting with sound, or frustrated that there’s something he doesn’t know how to tell us, or limit-seeking or what.  sometimes the screaming is part of impatience for food or the frustrated desire for something we won’t let him have, but other times it seems kind of random. 

of course, our faces must also betray the natural shock of the sudden noise, and sometimes a very disapproving, “Miles, no!” slips out. especially for my husband, who has particularly sensitive ears.  i figure it’s okay for Miles to know that the screaming upsets me–i mean, he’s not a dummy; i’m sure he knows we don’t like it–but i want to discourage this in a way that’s respectful, firm and effective.  (oh, janet, sometimes it’s REALLY loud.  really.  loud.  it’s like it stops time.  my husband referred to it as “wearing a helmet made of scream.”)   and unlike when he’s experimented with whacking us in the face or climbing on furniture, i can’t physically block him from doing this. 

are we going about this in a healthy way?  is there something else we could try?

many, many thanks.  for all you do!

lindsay.

 

Hi Lindsay,

First, know that screaming is common toddler behavior and can be caused by any of these things you are postulating: “experimenting with sound, or frustrated that there’s something he doesn’t know how to tell us, or limit-seeking”. But it would only be ‘limit-seeking’ in that it’s a test to see the effect his behavior has on you and your husband… a test of his power.  That definitely doesn’t mean you should try to limit him from doing it as you would behaviors like the “whacking”.

Anyway, as you say, that’s impossible. You can’t “physically block him from doing this.” And, though it hurts your ears, it’s not unsafe for him. It’s an earsplitting way to express himself, but it doesn’t come under the heading of Unacceptable Behavior. Not for a 15-month old. They key is to react to the scream as little as possible, preferably not at all.

With screaming (or shouting or whining), I believe it best to remain unfazed, but stay present and just wait. Instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, I would just say as calmly as possible, “When you’re done, I can try to help you”. Have that be your attitude: I’m here for you. I’m waiting. I’m not going to get wound up. Sometimes you won’t say anything, you’ll just wait.

Since the screaming is becoming habitual, I wouldn’t even get into acknowledging what the scream is about unless you’re sure. Then, when he’s done you might say, “You didn’t want me to buckle your car seat. You wanted to do it yourself.” “It’s hard to wait when you’re so hungry.” Or, “You had some strong feelings about that.”

I know, I know, I know it’s hard not to react when it’s so loud and catches you by surprise. Go ahead and hold your ears, but do it calmly. It’s okay if you have a little reaction, but then try to compose yourself so Miles doesn’t feel too uncomfortably powerful. The sooner it becomes an uninteresting, ineffective, unthreatening (to your sanity) thing to do, the sooner he’ll be able to stop doing it, or at least do it less often.

Some of these screams could also be early tantrums, releasing some of the healthy feelings of frustration he’s having while learning and growing rapidly. His enthusiasm around language development and the way you are handling it sounds wonderful, but there will be times (as you say) when he can’t communicate the things he wants to tell you, which will lead to frustration and possibly screaming or tantrums. The accelerated learning that happens in the toddler years is exciting for a child, but hard, too, and sometimes Miles might need to express how hard he’s working.

Educator Patty Wipfler clarifies this beautifully in her video about “tantrum triggers”.

 

And here’s one of my podcasts on this subject:

Remember, this too shall pass and probably sooner than you think. For perspective, Miles probably wouldn’t do this with a caregiver he didn’t know as well or feel as comfortable with. He screams with those he loves. Sort of a backhanded-compliment? Later on, you’ll no doubt look back wistfully at these days…and if you’re as sentimental as I am, you might even miss those screams (hmmm…but probably not).

Warmly,
Janet

I share many more suggestions for handling toddler behavior in
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by A. Witt on Flickr)

72 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi. You say that screaming out of frustration is acceptable because he’s a toddler-how about a three year old? What strategy should I use if my three year old screams out of frustration? It’s hard to be with him and wait till he’s done with my one year old who gets frightened by his screaming. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jaime – The best way to handle to screaming is to allow it and see it as positive venting, including when a child is 3 or older. If you are in public, I would help your child to a more private place, the car, etc., so that others aren’t disturbed. I actually doubt that your one year old is frightened by the screaming, though the one year old may be disturbed by your reaction to it. The one year old has had enough exposure to his or her sibling that the screaming, though it might startle, should not frighten. If the child reacts, it’s usually more of an empathy response… they hear their sibling screaming and they express feelings along with them. So, I would try to back up and take a look at your perception of the screaming and see it as a therapeutic way of venting strong feelings. This, too, shall pass!

  2. Thanks for this article. Our almost-19-month old is going through an ear-piercingly loud screeching phase. Thankfully it’s usually only once or twice a day (but then repeated many times) and it’s pretty random, usually when he’s otherwise in a good mood – I assume just testing what he can do with his voice. Unfortunately, he has been doing it in our hotel room in the last 30 minutes or so before bedtime. We’re already in as private a place as we can be, yet if he keeps screeching, it will definitely bother other guests. We don’t have a car here, and it’s a huge property that would take us at least 10 minutes to get from our room out of the building. We’ll be here a few more nights… any suggestions? Thank you!

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