Overwhelmed by a Toddler’s Constant Demands, Screaming and Testing

In this episode: Janet responds to a mother who is feeling utterly defeated by her 2.5-year-old’s round-the-clock demands for her attention. She and her husband are simply spent, feeling “tired, frustrated and miserable.”

For more on coping with intense, demanding toddlers, please check out this new audio resource — “Sessions” — my recorded consultations with parents: SessionsAudio.com

Transcript of “Overwhelmed by a Toddler’s Constant Demands, Screaming and Testing”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. This week I’m responding to a mom who reacted to my article “Set Limits Without Yelling.” She has a two-and-a-half year old and he seems to be constantly testing her and she’s struggling mightily to keep a cool head.

So just to give you a sense of the article, if you haven’t read it, I discussed what I call some common discipline missteps. And missteps doesn’t mean terrible parents or doing these terribly wrong things; it simply means that these are things that actually make behavior worse in our children, and so it’s not going to help us if we do these things. They’re normal things that we all do, so there’s no judgment there; just noticing that these are going to set us up for more problems, so it’s good to get a handle on them.

One is yelling.

Two is not setting limits early enough, which often leads to yelling or feeling like yelling.

Three, not following through, which can also lead to yelling.

“Oh, Janet, this comes right in the moment when I’m feeling so sad because I feel like a failure. I’m struggling with a 2.5-year-old boy who’s testing me dozens of times a day. Reading this makes me think that I, too, wait much longer than I should before taking action, until I feel worn out with no patience left at all, and I end up yelling.

Doesn’t help the fact he is always looking for me, doing things with me, being on my lap, or even nursing. As soon as I sit down, he comes looking for nursies. When he plays, he wants me there 8 times out of 10. And since beginning preschool, not sure what it’s called in English … Anyway, it’s the school I work at as well, so he sees me there with other kids, it’s obviously gotten worse. He wants mommy for every single thing, even feeding sometimes. He doesn’t want to be left home with anybody else, but me when I go once a week, the only two hours I keep for myself all week to the swimming pool. I try to have quality time with him every day, but I obviously have a house to run besides work, so I can’t spend all the time playing with him.

The icing on the cake is the screaming. He’s done that for ages. First, screaming for no reason, and he has a voice so loud it’s unbelievable; now, both for no reason and when he can’t have something the way he’d like. We tried ignoring first, then telling him that’s not the right way to ask or say things and replying only when he would say things in a normal voice. Worked sometimes but not every time, possibly because we lost it a few times, me and my husband. Maybe he knows that’s a switch for us. When he yells right in your ear and you go deaf for a moment, it’s really hard to keep cool, so we were that dumb to yell back, ‘Stop screaming! Do you like this?’ I know, a very low point.”

I never thought it would get like this, that I would end up this tired, frustrated and miserable for knowing I am not doing him any favor by being this weak, but that’s where we are right now.

I have to admit I’m relieved those days when he naps in the afternoon, happens rarely, and I know it shouldn’t be this way.

I portrayed him like a bad kid. Obviously, he’s not. It’s just as if there was a communication breakdown many times. Sorry for venting this out. This article made me think I need to try again in a different manner. Hopefully, we’re still in time. Anyway, thanks for your words. I will try to make some time for reading as many older posts as I can and read again your book. I have it and loved it, but it seems I need a lot of repetition to get things to stick in my brain.”

Okay, so let’s see what we can do to help this little guy and help this family. It sounds like this mother is having a hard time taking a leadership role in the house with her son. And this is a very little guy, two-and-a-half. He really needs to know that he’s not the one with all the power in the house and that even his loudest scream isn’t going to jar his parents.

Now, I know that’s asking a lot of you, but it’s a mentality. Of course, sometimes it’s going to catch you by surprise and be right in your ear and you’re going to jump a little. He sounds like the kind of child that really does have a lot of intense emotions to share at this age. That doesn’t mean he’s going to grow up to be a screamer or somebody that just loses it at the drop of a hat.

He has very low impulse control and emotional self-control at this age, as all children do, and he is an intense character. He’s probably going to be very powerful guy in a lot of ways, strong-willed, and so I would meditate on the truth that he is a guy that needs to scream. He has reasons to scream. He’s in group care for a good part of the day, and not that there’s something wrong with that, but it’s a lot of stimulation and there’s stress that’s created in these situations. Then, on top of that, his mother is there and he doesn’t really have her attention on him like he does at home, ever. He’s always got to share it with these other children. So that becomes a big distraction for him and makes it harder for him to be in that environment, in a way. I mean, it can be a plus as well that he has you there, but it’s also sharing you. Sharing you is hard. So, particularly at the end of the day, he is going to have some blasts to share with everybody.

I think the big key to this is to know the difference between what he wants and what he really needs. He doesn’t need to be sitting on your lap all the time. He doesn’t need to be nursing whenever he wants. He doesn’t need to have you playing with him and have your attention all of the time. He really does not need that. He’s wanting that right now, but what he actually needs is to be able to share his feelings, share his screams and his tantrums, and whatever else, crying, and whatever else he needs to share, and have you accept it and not be intimidated by it. And to have you as a leader with personal boundaries around your body, when it’s okay for him to sit on your lap and when it’s okay for him to nurse. Be very clear about that, because the more clear you are, the less distracted and caught up in all of these pushing you and testing you he’s going to be. The freer he will be. The more comfortable he will be knowing he is not in charge; knowing that at two-and-a-half he doesn’t control and have all this power to upset these two giant grown up people in his life that he needs to be rock solid.

So it’s easy for me to say, “You’ve got to be more of a leader and you can do this.” The hard part for all of us is the part where our children don’t agree with our decisions and they say they really want something, they really need something, or they show us that they really seem to need something, and our heart, especially if we’ve been working all day and maybe we don’t have tons of time with them, our heart sinks and we think, “Oh dear, maybe, maybe I have been neglecting him or maybe he does need this,” and “Oh, gosh, he really just asked for a hug or he just asked to sit with me. He just wants somebody to play with him. What’s wrong with that?”

I can go there very easily with children. I am a big softie in all of that. I know those thoughts that can go through our minds and those worries, and how hard it is. I mean, children are very, especially guys like this, they’re very persuasive. They know what gets to us. He knows that perfect scream that’s going to make you and your husband go crazy. Not because he’s an evil child, but he’s got to see if you two are really on top of this, if you two are really seeing how tiny and in need of leadership he is. So he’s going to have to go all the way to all of the usual things that get to you, to check, “Is this going to get to them? Is that going to get to them? How do they feel about their leadership in this area? How do they feel about it there? How does she feel about saying no to nursing? I mean, this is wonderful connection that we’ve had since I was a baby.” It’s going to be hard, so that’s why it’s important to know the difference between his needs and his wants.

What he needs is, yes, some attention from you every day. It could be just a few minutes here and a few minutes there. Sometimes you’ll have longer to give him, but to give him undivided attention periodically when you can, especially when he’s eating, when he’s nursing, the times that you do decide that you’re going to nurse. And I would decide that ahead of time with him and really have a routine around that that you stick to, because there’s a lot of people that promote nursing on demand. Well, that’s applicable and important for an infant, but with a toddler, part of their job is to demand to see if somebody can stop them, if these people can take care of him.

It’s his job to demand and that’s not going to work around nursing. It’s got to come from you deciding when are good times for you to do this, and really sticking to that. Then he won’t have to ask all the time.

But if you’re a little bit guilty when you say no or if you’re unsure and just a little sad about it, or you’re wavering in anyway, he’s going to have to keep asking. That’s true with all of these limits: sitting on your lap, having you play with him rather than sitting with him sometimes while he plays and really giving him your full attention, not having your phone, not having any distractions.

But also doing your own thing. When he comes and wants to hang right next to you, it’s okay for him to hang right next to you. You’re not going to get rattled by it. You’re not going to stop what you’re doing. You’re going to take the power out of that activity for him by not minding whether he wants to follow you around or not.

If he wants to ask you 50,000 times to play with him, that’s okay. You’re still going to do what you’re doing and every once in a while, not every time he says it, but every once in a while, you’re going to say, “I hear you, you still want to play with me.”

You don’t have to repeat, “I’m going to play with you after I do so and so.” I would do that the first time. I’d be very clear and say, “You really want me to play with you now and that’s hard, because I have to do this. I can play with you after dinner for a little while, I’m going to sit with you.” So I would say that the first time, but not keep pleading your case with him because, if we think about it, the reason we get caught up in that is that we really just want him to stop objecting and just agree to it, and he can’t. A lot of the time, children this age, they can’t. They need that feeling of disagreement with us so that they can release these tensions of the day.

So, it takes a lot of reminding ourselves that this needs to happen, and that it doesn’t look like … It’d be so nice if it looked like, at the end of the day, he says … he’s sitting with you and he verbalizes, “It was stressful today. All these children were there and it was so much fun, and we did this or that, but, you know, I’m exhausted. And AAH! I just need to scream. I need to run around. I need to yell. I need to cry.”

If he could say all that, wouldn’t that be easy? I would love that if children were that clear, but they’re not. It looks like, “Mommy, play with me. Mommy, play with me. I need to nurse. Nursies, nursies, nursies.” All these things that they know are going to get to us, they want to push up against us. They want to have us be able to say, “You’re saying all that. You’re not happy with my choice, but this is my choice. And know in your heart, in every cell of your body, actually, that you’re being a great parent there. That you’re being that leader.

Accepting that our children aren’t happy with our choices, that’s parenting right there, in a nutshell. “Tell me more about how mad you are that I’m not playing with you right now.” Like really going to that extent where you feel like this is a good exchange for us to be in, instead of, Oh, yikes, maybe I’m doing it wrong. I’m not giving him enough. He’s not happy and that means I’m a failure and I’m a terrible parent. That’s where most of us go.

So, again, it’s so easy for me to say he needs more leadership from you, but what that actually looks like is challenging. It’s our job though. I mean this is the job that we take when we become parents. We have to be leaders for our children. They can’t be the ones that are leading in the house and charging everybody up with their two-and-a-half year old shenanigans.

So, you’ve got a great guy here. You’ve got a blustery, strong guy. He’s going to be very persuasive in whatever he does, but he needs to scream a little or cry a little every day probably. The more he gets it out of his system, the better. You’re not abandoning him to do that. You’re just accepting.

Accepting means that you don’t try to fix it, that you trust it, and you go about the things that you need to do right there, if you can’t stop and be there for him when he’s upset. Sometimes you have to go and do things and you say, “Yeah, I see, you’re so … ugh… You just want to scream when I say no to you about that. I’m going to go in here and I’ll be back to check on you.”

If he follows you, just carry on and trust that this is an okay dynamic for you to be in. In fact, I honestly believe this is quality time, especially for working parents or parents that don’t have a lot of time with their children. A lot of the time, this is what quality time will end up looking like: you hearing the feelings.

Just like later, if we’re lucky, we get to hear these disappointments that children have, their first love and the feelings aren’t returned, or they didn’t make the team, or … This is the same thing. It’s all those things that we want to be as parents.

So this mother said she needs a lot of reminders and repetition. We all do. Welcome to the club. I still do with much older children than that. I still need to remember, “Ugh, that’s right. This is healthy for them to not be happy, either with me or with their life right now, and thank goodness they can express it. Thank goodness, they have bestowed me with this gift of being able to trust me with their feelings, and that I’m not going to try to take them away. I’m not going to try to shift them and give in to something to make them feel better.”

I hope that helps. Please listen to some of my other podcasts. They are on iTunes and SoundCloud and Stitcher, and also my books. For those that like podcasts, you probably will like them best on audio, and that’s on Audible.com; Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can get both audio books for free with a 30-day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of this podcast. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Thank you all so much for listening. We can do this.


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

  1. Hi Janet,

    Thank you for the podcast. This is so helpful. I have being listening to your podcast and it has been immensely helpful.

    I am in a similar situation like the parent in the podcast, I will try to follow your tips.
    But what I also tend to do if, my toddler starts to cry, I tell her NOT to and use her words.

    But I am wondering if saying Not to say is telling her not to express herself. Am I not letting her say what she is feeling… What is your tip on when they cry?

    I think I give her a cold shoulder and I think I need to be more connected when I say things but lately its just get so frustrating that I forget that. Please help!

    thank you so much!

    1. Hi Apruva – Yes, I think you’re on to something here: “I think I need to be more connected when I say things…” Our job is to express the boundaries. Children need to reserve the right to respond to that as wish and, ideally, we will accept and even empathize with their feelings. That’s how they get the chance to vent the emotions that are actually driving the behavior. If they can share the feelings by crying, screaming, stomping feet, etc., then they won’t need to act them out through behavior.

  2. Have ever thought that actually telling your child “NO” won’t help??? Omg! Kids are so spoiled nowadays it’s ridiculous! I babysat my whole life and NEVER EVER met a child that SCREEAMS ALL DAY LONG!!!! MAybe they be hard of hearing?? Stop with the “oh don’t do this and don’t do that” sermon! GET THEM CHECKED!

    1. Wow – easy to judge when you don’t have kids. It is tough. They often behave for other people. Some kids are very easy going. Some kids are not. Blaming the parents is very antiquated and not very nice. I have a wild one. It is hard work. I have lost count of how many times I walk out of shops with her screaming. I stay calm but it is so hard. I don’t think I am a bad parent and believe me, the LAST thing I need right now is judgement. I need a bit of understanding. Be kind when you see ‘those kids and their parents’. You never now how tormented they may be. Don’t make them feel worse. Be kind.

      1. I am in the same boat nothing has worked I’m so overwhelmed. Now I am a mom of 6 and I know kids and each child is different. Did this work for you?? What helped you’ll guys. I’m overwhelmed ♥️

  3. This article is the most amazing thing I have ever come across. Many times I have googled about my screaming boy, but whatever magic word combo I used recently brought me to this link and wow!

    I followed the crumbs to two of the other hyperlinks and left 2 pages of notes at the back of my bullet journal of all these articles.

    Basically, I have had mom-guilt since day one and didnt think I could ever take time for myself. The way you explain how healthy and important it is to have these firm boundaries is incredible. My second boy screamed all the time when he was a baby. I am pretty good at staying calm but I could never settle him, so my anxiety was cranked to overload and I was constantly trying to appease his every need, and then I must have conditioned him to expect that. I night weaned him twice already, just to eventually concede, because I was worried when he would still cry in the night. I just did for the third time. I noticed each time he was told “no” to nursing in the night that he was in such a better mood the next day, even though he slept less. So I read this article and wow! A Lightbulb went off! I see so many problems I am having- he always has to have my phone, he always has to sit on my lap, he always has to eat my plate of food, he always wants to use my art supplies. He doesn’t like sharing me with his brother! And worst of all- he cries and tantrums ALL day long, ONLY when I am around. If my husband is alone with the boy, he’s an angel.

    It also made me realize why my firstborn never slept through the night until he was 2.5, and why my youngest also doesn’t sleep through the night. I co-slept with both of them and if they would wake up and cry, they would need to be soothed back to sleep. This article really helps me understand the importance of them crying-it-out, as long as they are being loved and heard through the process. So three nights into night-weaning attempt #3; he doesn’t wake for milk. Doesn’t ask for milk, and tonight he went to bed with me just sitting beside him- not laying with him! Feeling in control.

    As for the babysitter- please come back when you have your own kids. You can’t possibly understand the emotional attachment from a parent’s perspective and our want and need to do the right thing. It’s not that we don’t tell our kids “no.” It’s that we don’t recognize how these patterns backfire, of being too laid back or not wanting avoiding upsetting our children in denial day-to-day interactions.

    1. Hi Lindsay – I’m so glad this perspective was helpful for you! You’ve got this!

      1. This article really helped me have a good understanding of how to go about things differently with my son. He’s definitely been testing me, and I’m currently 34 weeks pregnant. So it’s very hard to try to compose myself.But for all of our sakes I’m going to try my best to change and accept.

        1. Yes, it’s so challenging, but I believe in you!

  4. I just read this post after having one of my hardest days of motherhood. My son is almost 2.5 and he will not listen when we ask him to stop doing something. He will give us a sly smile and immediately do the opposite. Now that we know the signs of when to intervene he has started screeching and slapping when he does not get his way. This frustrates my husband to no end. We have resorted to time-out, where he will just sit and scream louder.

    I am at a loss, but I will take these tips and give them a go. I know he needs leadership so that is what I will try and be for him – a strong leader.

  5. avatar JOANNA S. says:

    I really needed this article. I feel exactly like this parent does and I’m so very grateful for having come across this. Thank you for your recommendations and I definitely will approach my toddler boy with a different perspective now. The challenge is in getting the rest of my family (his Aunt and Grandmother) to come on board. Wish me luck!

    1. I do! You’ve got this! Thanks for your kind words. My advice would be to let go of worrying about the rest of the family. It’s okay if others do things differently. Our power is ourselves. Thanks again!

  6. avatar Sanket Doshi says:

    Good article. I have the same problems with my 2YO boy. Came here for a solution and the take away is there no clear cut solution. Was hoping for a magic trick that would work for all at the end even though i knew there isn’t any after reading almost every article of the web.
    I sometimes read these articles just to not make me feel alone. Almost evey parent i meet have a child who is calm. I feel bad sometimes that i never got an average child that behaves like a good little cute baby that makes you want to have babies in the first place.

  7. What do you suggest if child has Sensory Processing , ADHD, or Autism Spectrum? Same advice?

    1. Generally, yes, my advice would be the same. Be clear about your boundaries, allow and even encourage your child to vent feelings and stress. Be aware of their perspective — what it feels like to be them so you can be more empathic and less reactive. Do your best to create a safe, healing environment.

      What do you imagine might be different with a neurodiverse child?

  8. Hi! My two year old screams and gets upset when she doesn’t get what she wants or we don’t understand what she wants . Or if we try to change a diaper and she doesn’t want to etc etc. Shes not talking yet so this compounds everything I know. I’m not understanding how and what we are supposed to do to help her stop this behaviour. I have a 6month old as well and older children . So the trouble comes with the consistency. My older ones watch her while I’m dealing with the baby at times and what is easier for me is not so easy for a teenager to deal with. Any help ? I’m at a loss .

  9. Hi Janet,

    Thank you so much for your podcast, it has been so helpful! I am seeing some of the EXACT same behaviors from my 14 month old ad mentioned in this podcast. I love the idea of clear boundaries but am curious if I should handle things in the same way as you mentioned above with a child who is a little over one (much younger than 2.5)?

    I guess sometimes I worry that if I set boundaries “too early” I am somehow sending him messages of rejection. And yet, I am exhausted from being constantly tugged on and whined for and pulled around all day long. My guy has a VERY big personality and lots of feelings.

    Any insight you’d be able to share would be so helpful! 🙂

    Thank you!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations