elevating child care

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, offloading 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” (from Hand in Hand Parenting)

 

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

 

(Photo by A. Witt on Flickr)

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35 Responses to “When Toddlers Scream”

  1. avatar sara says:

    love this.
    we’re past the screaming stage (and i sort of look back at it wistfully!) but this can totally be applied to anything and is such an awesome reminder. thank you.

    and thanks for the HiH video too – patty wipfler is great.
    (and, of course, you are too!)

    xo

  2. I am ever grateful our girls have not tried this. We do the adult approach you suggest of helping them name their need/want/thought etc so maybe that helps head it off…or more likely we are LUCKY. Always enjoy your posts!

  3. avatar Holly says:

    Our almost one year old just started the screaming thing a couple weeks ago. I pretty much ignored it, and it has already decreased dramatically. My sister was visiting and she was surprised at my reaction, but I explained to her that’s he’s still figuring himself out. :)

  4. avatar Candace says:

    What do you do when it is a 4 year old who still screams? Otherwise an intelligent and healthy and normal mostly well behaved little boy, but he will quickly get to scream proportions whenever he is excited or not thinking well, and as his mom puts is, he just LIKES to scream. A whistling, squealing kind of scream that people get almost doubled over by.

    • avatar janet says:

      The people getting “doubled over” is the key. He’s found a powerful tool and he’ll probably want to use it as long as it’s working for him. Think lion roaring. It’s probably a good sign — a strong personality. Also, 4 is a “power” age, like the 2s, it’s a time when children commonly test their power and our limits. So, I would allow him to scream and not rush over and try to help or come unglued. If he’s in public, I would treat it as a tantrum, say calmly, “It’s time to go home” and follow through.

  5. avatar valia says:

    Hi, Janet!

    I’m Valia from Greece again! Just felt the need to thank you for you posts and this time for the great video! Before reading your valuable advice I had the tendency to distract my 15-month-old daughter whenever she would cry or scream so as to express her anger – of course, the outcome was not at all satisfactory! I have been trying really hard to follow your advice and I think that it finally works now! Anyway, thank you once more… Whenever I feel disappointed or that I am losing control, I receive a post of yours just to remind me what is the hard but most proper think to do for the love of my life!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Valia! Thanks for the great feedback. Nothing could make me happier than being able to help when you “feel disappointed” or as if you are losing control. :)

  6. avatar Jessica Z. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! My 13-month-old does this, too. And I was handling it the same way (“that hurts my ears, please tell me what is wrong”). I was inclined to ignore it but was afraid it wouldn’t be respectful, but now I will follow those instincts. Now that I think about it, the screaming is already dramatically reduced, so perhaps there is something to it being a stage. Anyway, thanks for the always helpful responses. I am struggling through sleep issues with our toddler right now and am trying to frame a question — but I’m looking around your site and forum to see if you’ve responded to a question about how to respectfully address infants/toddlers who have trouble getting the sleep thing before asking a redundant question!

  7. avatar Laura M says:

    I cannot believe this got posted – I was literally about to send in this same question, but I do have a follow-up. I really agree with your advice and will follow it at home and most places readily, but what about restaurants? I have a very happy baby who screams out of pure joy. He’s only 11 months old, so there’s only so much I can do, but do you have any suggestions for when this occurs in restaurants and I want to keep other people’s feelings in mind? I was at a bagel store yesterday morning and I just kept saying “Daniel, I won’t let you scream in restaurants” and giving him the Look, but of course that’s ridiculous because despite “not letting” them there’s not a darned thing I can do about it. I often find that if I just give him more food he will quit for a while, and then if it gets bad I just leave, but is there anything else I should do?

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Laura! How about an outdoor table, or better yet, takeout and a picnic in the park? But when the weather sucks and you’re stuck in a restaurant, your best bet is probably the feed and run you’re doing.

      Keep in mind that even a reponse as seemingly subtle as the Look and “Daniel, I won’t let you scream in restaurants” can make screaming something interesting to do. He’s well aware that you disapprove…and may then be wondering “what are you going to do about it?” 11 months is when these kinds of tests commonly begin… and they are an important and healthy part of development. But our responses do have great impact. Reacting negatively to the scream can make it into a little mini-drama that your boy is compelled to replay. If his scream experiment doesn’t bring about a meaningful result, he can let it go and move on.

  8. avatar lindsay says:

    thank you for this, janet! (i should have attached a photo of our screaming Miles so you could use the image–and maybe a sound file, too). the idea of him feeling uncomfortably powerful is very compelling–i don’t want that for him, and it makes sense to measure our reactions to make him feel safer. it could be my imagination, but the screaming already seems to have lessened over the last couple of days, so . . . here’s hoping. he *is* doing such an admirable job with the hard work of toddlerhood; i’m very proud of him.

    • avatar janet says:

      Oh, yes! The photo and sound track would have been a great addition. Miles is a lucky guy to have a mom with such sensitivity and empathy: he *is* doing such an admirable job with the hard work of toddlerhood; i’m very proud of him. Thanks again for your email and questions.

  9. avatar Julia says:

    Thanks as always for such an insightful and wonderful post! We went through the same thing when my son was 14 months old, and he started his screeching phase while we were on a large family vacation in Hawaii for Christmas. We were constantly trapped in public places with a screeching toddler, and it was QUITE challenging! His screaming tended to be about exercising his vocal abilities and expressing excitement, which made it challenging to react to, as I didn’t want him to feel like we were quenching his “verbalization” of all of his new experiences. The “this too shall pass” comment is so true, we just kept reminding ourselves that this was a new phase, not a permanent situation, and *tried* to exercise calm impartialness when we could, or removed him from the restaurant/lounge area/coffee shop etc. when needed. By the time he was almost 16 months old, the phase had passed and now, I do somehow look back on it fondly :)

  10. avatar Robin says:

    When our 2yo started screaming awhile back, I think we caught her by surprise. We said, ‘no screaming in the house… you can yell in the house, you can sing in the house, you can giggle in the house, you can use lots of words in the house… but we don’t scream in the house. Do you want to yell, or sing, or giggle, or use some words?’ It distracted her from whatever had upset her and the moment was past. We still say this when she starts to scream and I’m amazed that it still works! I think perhaps she likes it that there is only one thing that’s a no-no but she gets so many other choices. When she DOES choose something else we tell her that was very smart and a good choice.

  11. avatar Elanne Kresser says:

    Thanks Janet.
    I’ve found that screaming has waxed and waned with my daughter. It will settle down for awhile and then bam, she’s teething, or she’s developed some new awareness and it’s the return of the ear splitting scream. We compare it to the moment in the movie Splash when Darryl Hannah says her name and all the windows break. Our daughter is feisty, passionate, and wants what she wants NOW! The hardest part for me is in public or around other parents who’s children either haven’t been into screaming (and I have to say I don’t think this is a parenting issue, some children are more easy-going in their nature than others) or haven’t reached the screaming stage yet. I fear judgement and sometimes find myself reacting more than I know is beneficial so that I look like I”m doing something about it. Painful to admit, but true. Your reminder that this is not unacceptable behavior for a toddler is super helpful. If there is one thing that has come along that has made me realize I have to do what I think is right no matter what other people think of me, it’s parenting!

  12. avatar Emily says:

    Thank you! Thank you! My 3 year old is a screamer. She screams when she gets really upset, angry, overwhelmend, or frustrated. It’s the kind of scream you might be able to hear all the way in California! I keep wondering when she will grow out of it. My biggest issue has been that when we are out in public (even in our back yard), she will scream over and over, and onlookers assume she is mortally wounded! So, we are trying to equip her with an alternative. For now, we just keep telling her, “You can scream into a pillow or into your hands. You can’t scream out loud. People think you’re hurt.” It seems to be a neccesary emotional outlet for her, but oh. my. word! I am ready for her to find another outlet. :) And I say this with all the love and respect for her in the world. Any other advice would be appreciated!! :) Thank you, as always…Emily

  13. avatar Erin says:

    Thank you for this! Those are the tactics we used when my now 2 1/2 year old was going through that phase and it worked wonderfully! Hopefully it will again with the next one.
    I do have some off-topic type questions that maybe I should just email (although I have been putting that off for a while now).
    We are going through some challenges with my 2 1/2 year old (almost 3 actually.. wow!) She whines almost EVERYTHING she says. Granted we have a 7 month old in the house now and that is a huge adjustment for her. We have been trying to be respectful to her and just tell her that we can’t understand her when she whines and to please use her other voice. Sometimes that helps. Sometimes not so much.
    Another thing: she purposefully hurts her brother. I know this is totally normal, and I say ‘I won’t let you do that’ while restraining her (although a lot of times she will laugh when i do this, and I am not sure how to handle that)- but I am not always able to be right there and she will just sometimes walk up and kick him in the head. So far the way we handle it is to say ‘We won’t let you hurt your brother and now you cannot play in this room with us please go play somewhere else for a while’. (although this feels too close to ‘TIMEOUT!’ which I don’t like). Also, my hubby does not think we are doing enough to really make her believe that hurting her brother is not ok. She is usually the most docile kid in a group… so this always throws us. Anyway, I have been trying to stay calm and make sure she knows she does not have power over us to make us react, but the whining and the hurting are starting to really get to me! What to do?!
    There are other things I wanted to ask about, but now I feel silly having written this novel, so I will leave it at that! Thank you!!

  14. avatar Jen says:

    Oh my goodness I was literally researching screaming toddler late into the night last night. We have a screamer and it’s only gotten worse as he has gotten older. He started shrieking here and there before he turned one and it was easy to ignore and brush off as him learning sounds and testing out his voice. The intensity has ebbed and flowed for months. We thought we were actually coming out of the screaming phase as he is so verbal these days and can repeat much of what we say back to us now at 20 months. The problem is that as he got older we tried to explain that screaming was not ok, we said “that hurts my ears, ” “I cannot let you scream.” etc. hoping he would understand this now because he will say “noooo” in a soft tone when we explain it. I think that really backfired because we were able to say “I cannot let you touch the stove, or hit the dog etc, but he knows he has full control over his mouth. Obviously there is nothing we can do about the screaming and he knows that so he continues. Our responses have varied enough that I now feel doomed no matter what I try. We’ve tried just walking away or putting him somewhere safe and telling him we will be right back, but we cannot around him when he screams because honestly, it is so loud it sounds like there is wind in my ears from the waves of sound. I need a break and cannot remain as calm as I would like when he repeats it over and over with a grin of delight. Now I see that was just egging him on for more. He is just getting to the point where every little thing sets him off and we get a couple of shrieks. Overall he recovers well and has only had major melt downs in end of the day situations or similar to the ones explained in the video, when I return from work and Grandma goes home. I can see that from another angle now. I am going to try to stay and wait and have my husband watch the video too. Thank you so much for this post. I am hoping we can flush out these feelings soon and lighten his load. It’s been so very stressful because our older neighbors (condo living) have commented on our “loud mouth” and it’s hard not to feel that added stress and want to stop it fast when it starts.

  15. avatar Natalie says:

    Dear Ms. Lansbury:
    As a mother to a two year old, your blog has been a God send to me. I am so thankful to have discovered your blog through the Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond Facebook page.
    My son is a screamer and this is a tremendous help in understanding and guidance on how my husband and I should handle. I feel so much better now.
    THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART :)

  16. avatar Heather says:

    I honestly feel like this post was written especially for me. I have been in tears again today, because of my struggle with my 2yo screaming.

    At first he was just squealing out of excitement at seeing a bus or a truck, which are some of his favourite things, but it has escalated into loud screeching, and not just from excitement. He has started doing it out of frustration, and then there have been times when I haven’t known why – maybe to get a reaction, maybe just because he likes the noise. I know that a lot of it is due to delayed speech – I can’t wait for him to get more words so there is less need for it.

    Up until now, I have been trying to respond to it calmly and empathise with his frustration or acknowledge his excitement. It’s when there has been no apparent reason and he keeps doing it that I have found it hard to stay calm and have gotten to the point where I have yelled at him to stop because I couldn’t take it anymore. That happened again today while shopping and I broke down in the car, because I can’t go on like this anymore.

    When I got home and put him down for a nap, I logged onto Facebook and found this. I cannot tell you what a godsend this is. It has been so helpful to me.

    I am pretty sure I allowed myself to get caught in a power game with him during dinner last night, when he started screeching again and I decided I would walk away to take a breath each time, in an effort to keep myself calm because it was starting to get to me. I ended up doing that several times and in the end realised I needed to stop.

    The fact that I can’t physically stop him from doing it has been making me feel powerless, because I felt like that’s what I needed to do so I didn’t go crazy from having to listen to it. That is not helping him get through this stage. I need to take control of my response to this and be more understanding of what is going on for him and what he needs from me to get past it. I was trying to take care of myself by avoiding it (a typical anxiety response for me) rather than facing it and not giving it the power to rattle me that I have been.

    Thank you Janet, more than I can say.

    And Jen, I totally understand what you’ve been through and how you feel and it really helped me to read about someone who has had the same struggle as me. I have also struggled to stay and listen to the screeching and have also tried walking away and putting him in another room. Hopefully this new perspective and advice will help turn things around for both of us. Best of luck to you.

  17. avatar Jennifer says:

    So we’ve been doing the stay and wait for a week now and we DO see a difference. Mostly in ourselves in not feeling the stress of feeling that we have to stop it. Trying to make it stop and being unable to was so stressful! Now I am sure it made it go on longer. He still has some bouts that last longer than we would like, but we we are able to stay calm and let him “unload his emotional backpack.” There are times where he really does just need to scream and then he’s all better and bounces back.

    We got home from a trip last night and he was tired, hungry and probably overwhelmed from travel. As soon as we got in the house he started just losing it. Running around screaming, crying, just upset. Did not want to be held, but did not want to be put down or anything else. Brought his shoes back to me and threw them at my feet after I had taken them off. We stayed close and the longer it lasted, we began unpacking and he followed us around stopping here and there when something caught his interest, and then starting up again. We told him we knew he was tired, teething, hungry and sad we had to leave Granny’s farm. As he calmed, I ran him a bath and he watched the water and got excited to get in. He took a bath and had dinner with no issues and passed out cold for the night at 6pm. This morning when he woke up he was cheerful and happy. After he had fallen asleep last night my husband and I talked about how much better we felt after that “fit” which was probably his most intense, longest scream fest to date. He said our son really unloaded his emotional backpack and it was great that we didn’t feel guilty for losing our cool trying to stop it. It felt really successful.

    • avatar janet says:

      Wow, sounds awesome, Jennifer! Thanks for sharing this success story.

  18. avatar Sundari says:

    Janet, I’m very grateful for the wisdom in this post, and it makes a lot of sense to me. My question is about the advice to “stay present and just wait” when there are two children to care for. In my situation (with a 12- and 13-month-old) the non-screaming child finds the screaming upsetting, and generally wants to move to another room. Or, at times, there is something (food, diaper change) that the non-screaming child needs.

    Is staying physically next to the screaming child an important part of the equation, or can I stay within his vicinity and let him know that I’ll try to help him once he’s done?

    • avatar janet says:

      Sundari – I think staying within the vicinity is fine. You sound sensitive and respectful to me.

  19. avatar Nicole Luchsinger says:

    Hi Janet,

    I am another parent of a very loud screaming little girl. When she is happy, upset, want’s something etc. She just turned one today. She has been doing this for a couple weeks and it is really starting to wear on me. I will definitely try some of the methods you suggested.

    I am wondering your opinion on a situation that happened today that has me a little peeved. It was my little ones birthday today and my step sister invited us to go out to lunch. I have been to this restaurant many times and they are very kid friendly even let me change baby’s diaper in owners office once.

    Today it was just us and a table of 3 older ladies. My little one was doing her thing and at one point they were giving us dirty looks. My sister said “excuse me” and they said something about the noise. She then told them “she’s only one”. The ladies continued to give us dirty looks told us they have had one year olds etc. Even when they left they gave dirty looks at us from outside and shook their heads. I kind of wish I would have gone up to them and said “shame on you”….or something. What should I do? Should I not go out? We are going to be on a plane in a couple weeks and I am dreading how it will go. Maybe some of the other parents with screamers have dealt with this as well.

    Thanks for the help!

    Nicole

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Nicole – I would probably limit my indoor outings while my child was passing through a screaming phase…and try to be sensitive to the noise level in the presence of others. I can understand your annoyance, but would not appreciate hearing screaming in a restaurant either…

  20. avatar Sherra Kinder says:

    Yes, Janet, this is a beautiful video. She spoke it so clearly, even though I am not familiar with stay listening, I get the wonderful concept. Thank you so much for your wonderful blog. Excellent. Resourceful. Practical! Thank you!

  21. avatar Medlori says:

    My apologies in advance, but I disagree with your advice when it comes to screaming in public places. Public places are intended for the public to enjoy. That’s why we have banned public smoking. It diminishes enjoyment for non-smokers and has negative health effects. A screaming child causes stress for nearly everyone. Negative stress, in addition to diminishing enjoyment, has negative health effects. Therefore, by not controlling your child’s public tantrum, your are causing harm to those around you.

    The child is not to blame. Infants and toddlers have yet to develop the skills necessary to understand the consequences of their behavior. However, as parents, you do. You are training your child on how to respond to people’s screams and tantrums. Analogously, when someone get’s a gun and shoots-up a theatre, we don’t ignore it until it goes away We look for means to prevent it. When your child is causing harm to others, such as stressful screaming in public, you need to do something about it. Pacifism is not always the appropriate response. I wish it were that easy. But, the place to let your child scream is away from public places.

    • avatar janet says:

      Medlori, I agree with you. If my child was passing through a screaming stage, I would limit my public outings with her for a while. And if she was having a screaming fit or tantrum, I would take her home or at least outside with me…

  22. avatar Heidi says:

    There is one thing to make sure and rule out with a screaming kid – and that is that the child’s ears are ok.

    Unbeknownst to his parents (and undetected by the pediatrician), my nephew had lingering ear infections in both ears and often screamed ear-piercingly. the parents followed their pediatricians similar advise as above (which is great in probably 99% of the cases), but it didn’t change a thing for my nephew.
    As we now know, he screamed because it gave him pressure relief from his ear infections. His screaming stopped immediately, once the infection was treated.

    • avatar janet says:

      Oh, gosh, thanks for sharing your important point, Heidi.

  23. avatar Tara says:

    Janet,
    I want to thank you for this site.

    I have three little girls ages 5, 3 1/2 and two. They have become bratty, whiney and out of control. Over the past month or so, I have been experiencing some of my lowest parenting moments, self doubt and feelings that I am damaging my children more than helping them and have even thought of packing up and leaving them with their grandparents.

    I have been reading your posts daily. Your wisdom has already helped me get back to my beliefs about children and childhood, take back some parental control and find joy in my girls once again.

    Thank you!

  24. avatar nichole says:

    My son just turned 16 months and he is a very happy baby. Learning words very quickly answering back with yes or no. But anywhere I go with him he screams. I kinda put it aside and do the “shhhh” sound and let him know he needs to talk and not scream. But he is a very happy testy boy. He will do it to get a reaction out of me but I havent been letting it. He still does it. He will scream inbetween eating bites of food. I dont know what else to do and this article did help alot but there are still some things I dont know how to handle. The hitting and biting, hair pulling. I have a full time job now since becoming a single mother and the attachment is getting worse. He never wants me to leave, I always tell him I will be back in a couple hours I have to go to work so I can buy you toys and diapers and give him a kiss and hug. Please help me with advice to make things better!. I hate seeing him get sad when I go to leave!

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