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, 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)

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73 Responses to “When Toddlers Scream”

  1. avatar Ruth says:

    Hi Janet,

    Thanks for such amazing articles. It’s helped so much! I follow your approach and our 20 month old is a very cooperative, independent, and happy child… when she’s with me. When it comes to being with my husband though… she screams and throws tantrums to the point that she even vomited twice. She has extreme separation anxiety with him and also panics any time he leaves the room for even a minute.

    I don’t know what to do.

    I’ve given my husband your website and have tried to share and guide him in your techniques… but he just doesn’t ‘get it’. As a former military officer, he tends to vascillate between being too harsh or too soft… and she always gets a rise out of him easily. He also isn’t so emotionally verbal, so he doesn’t offer much reassurance in words to her.

    We recently had a new baby also and I was with the baby in the NICU for almost two weeks – and my husband was mainly home with our daughter because she had pneumonia. During that time, the tantrums went off the charts (with my husband), but she’s fine when her and I are home together alone – even with the new baby.

    I really don’t know what to do to either help her or help my husband to understand things better. And I’m starting to think that might not happen at all. Is it damaging to our toddler for both of us to be parenting so differently and for her to be so calm with one of us and so out of control with the other? Because her screaming fits with him are things I’ve never seen her do before and so out of control that she’s made herself sick. And it breaks my heart to see it, especially knowing how happy, calm, and self-confident she usually is when she’s alone with me.

    What do we do?

    Thanks!

  2. avatar Carolyn says:

    My 3.5 year old daughter has started doing this. Would your approach be the same with an older child?

  3. avatar Darlene says:

    Hello, my name’s is Darlene and I could really use any kind of advice or help. So basically my daughter has been telling herself to sleep every night for over two months. It normally takes her anywhere from 1- 2 hours to go to sleep and has been closer to 2 for quite sometimes. The thing is she yell at herself saying don’t do that, be quiet, or lay down. Now I have to say this and it’s not easy for me but I believe she is imitating me yelling at her. I have recently realized that as much as I chose to ignore I was depressed after my daughter was born I was. I live across the country from my family so I don’t have much help and my daughter won’t go to sleep anywhere but her room. So if I care about her getting her sleep and not being over tired I feel like she has to be home. I take care of her every need pretty much by myself every day. I don’t have money to get babysitters and have been going through a bankruptcy. I also realized a couple months ago that I have severe anxiety. What I though were normal thoughts and reactions from me towards my daughter towards my husband weren’t. I would get upset and not be able to control the emotions I had. I would worry constantly about everything and has multiple questions going through my head every second of the day exhausting. Ex. My daughter isn’t going to sleep ME: did I dress her to hit? Did I give her the right blanket? Is the tv too loud? What should I do? Is she gonna be this way forever? All this whole I keep putting the volume on the tv up and down every 5 seconds.so I know by now you are like what is your question? So I know my daughter is imitating me I know that I’m basically the worst person and because of anxiety I didn’t even know I had I yelled at her and screwed her up. I am dealing with the anxiety trying to be a better example and control my emotions and tell her we are going to work on not telling together. I am also trying to work through a lot of feelings of guilt from doing this to her. It really hurts my heart that she tells herself to sleep because of Me and all I want to know from you is please is there any recovering from what I’ve done? What can I do to stop her from yelling? I am already trying to be calmer and not tell. I have tried ignoring it but it isn’t working. I’ve tried taking things away like a stuffed animal or watching tv. She doesn’t seem to care. Recently I’ve tried to sit on the floor and song to her for about 10 minutes to try and see if I can get her to associate bedtime as a more quiet peaceful non yelling time and it doesn’t seem to be working. I know what I have to done and I know I’m not doing very good but if you have any advice on anything I could try I would appreciate it. I’m trying to be who she needs now.

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