Should We Give a Screaming Toddler What He Wants?

In this episode: Janet responds to the parent of a toddler who says her son “cries, whines, and screams for everything he wants or needs.” She’s not sure how to respond. Sometimes she tries to calm him down, which tends to makes things worse, and sometimes she just gives in. She wants to set boundaries but doesn’t know how to do it in a way that he will understand without setting off a tantrum. This mom feels she’s in a no-win situation and isn’t sure the right way to react to his loud, emphatic requests.

Transcript of “Should We Give a Screaming Toddler What He Wants?”

Hi this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a Facebook message I received from the mother of an 18-month-old, who says her son whines or screams and cries whenever he wants something. More often than not she’s giving in to his demands, but she’s worried that this dynamic might get worse, and she doesn’t want to reinforce him screaming for what he wants.

Here’s the message I received:

“I listen to your podcast, I’ve read your books, and I like your page. I’m looking for advice regarding my 18-month-old boy. I realize you must be a busy woman, but I will go ahead and ask now just in case. With very few exceptions, my son cries, whines, and screams for everything he wants or needs. I encourage him to use the words he does know to ask for what he wants, and sometimes this does work. But I don’t know if I should be giving him anything when he’s screaming for it. The times I’ve tried not giving him what he’s screaming for, he ends up crying more, perhaps because he doesn’t understand why I’m not giving it to him. If I wait for him to calm down to give him something, it elongates the tantrum. I’m afraid if I keep giving him things when he’s not calm that this will get worse, and I’m concerned that he’s too young to understand what I’m trying to get across. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I’m not sure how to communicate with him in a way he understands, and set boundaries at the same time. Thank you kindly for all you do.”

Okay, so I think I’m understanding this parent’s dilemma. She’s not sure if she should be giving him things that he screams for. The answer is not a simple yes or no, so I want to get into it a little bit…

There are three typical scenarios where this plays out:

1) The first one is that a child this age, he’s only 18-months, or even a child a bit older than this, may not be super articulate at this point, although he understands language very, very well, he’s not expressively using it. And it could be that he’s asking for things a little too late. He needed to maybe ask a bit sooner, because he’s gotten too hungry, too tired, a little too overwhelmed, so the words that he does have aren’t coming out. He’s just not able to go there and use them.

And he’s asking for things that his parents would give him anyway: his food, some water. So these are, on their face, reasonable demands. But he’s unfortunately gotten to a very unreasonable place when he’s asking for these things. He’s too far gone, so he’s struggling. And in that scenario, I would absolutely give him what he’s asking for. But I wouldn’t get sucked into his chaos in asking for it. I would hold my own pace in responding, and understand that it’s really safe for him to be screaming and be dysregulated to this extent, and having a meltdown. It’s safe, and I don’t need to react as if this is a crisis or a fire that I need to put out.

For whatever reason he got tipped over into that emotional place. It’s okay. Maybe there are things we could consider that we could do next time to get a little on top of some of these needs. Sometimes there are things that we can learn from this happening. But other times, no, it’s just a part of being a toddler. It’s this intense, emotional age that we write so much about and talk so much about because there’s so much going on for them, they are easily overwhelmed.

So the way this might look is our son is screaming for, let’s say, something to drink, and he’s definitely over the edge. I would respond, “Wow! Yeah. You really want some water. I’m going to get it for you.” Not getting sucked into his storm. Understanding, again, that it’s safe for him to be there. What he needs is not somebody getting into that storm with him, “Okay, I’ll get it for you right now!” But an anchor, somebody that is going to hold their own pace and be the calm. And we can only do that when we trust.

We can’t fake being calm if we don’t feel calm. That’s very hard to do, and it usually doesn’t work anyway, because children know. But we can remind ourselves again and again that children of this age are so easily overtired, overstimulated, over hungry, over everything. They’re just over it. And it’s okay. It’s going to happen.

It doesn’t mean we’re a bad parent, doesn’t mean we have a bad child, that we’re doing things wrong. This gets the better of all of us. And again, children need to be able to go there, they need to fall apart and put themselves back together again and feel better, feel whole. Letting go of these emotions.

So that’s the first scenario, and in that scenario I would absolutely give into his demands, but again not at his pace, and not reactively. Responding from my own calmer place as his leader.

2) The other typical scenario is that a child will already be in a tantrum and they demand out of that tantrum. And we’ll notice that the demands become quite unreasonable. We might not notice it the first time, when our child, again let’s say they’re saying, I need that drink that you always give me. But we get them the drink and then they say, “No I need a different cup!” Then we have to realize, okay, this is not really about these particulars. This is my child letting go of feelings, that’s what’s going on here. Therefore, I’m not going to keep jumping through these hoops, responding to his demands, because really nothing will satisfy him in those moments because what he needs to do is feel the way he feels.

I will look at him with acceptance, I will breathe, I will take care of myself, I will trust this tantrum. That it’s the healthiest thing that could happen right now, if I just let it go, and keep him safe.

And then if there’s a moment for me to respond specifically to something, I might say, ” Oh shoot, you want this, now you want that, you want all these things, it’s really hard to feel like that.” Just acknowledging those specifics, but knowing myself that it’s not about those at all, it’s about somebody that nothing could please in that moment, because they need to scream, because they need to cry, because they need to feel unhappy. And these storms pass when we allow them and we don’t push back on them, and we don’t try to fix them. Okay, well if I just get him the different color… and now he’s going to ask for a certain straw…

It will go on and on and on, and it will naturally become very frustrating for us if we start to ride that with him, and that’s why our perception of these situations is so important. When we perceive what’s really going on, which is somebody needing to fall apart, our sweet darling child needing to just melt down and let go of all these feelings, then we won’t be wasting our energy and getting more and more frustrated ourselves. We’ll be able to be that therapist for our child in that moment. Seeing this as a positive experience, not something we’re doing wrong. So in those instances, I would acknowledge, I would allow him to demand and demand and demand, but I would understand that that’s not what this is about, and I would not respond to his demands.

3) The third scenario is when we are setting a limit, or we’re saying no to something, maybe it’s more of our attention when we’ve been paying attention, and now we need to get up and go do something. Or a child wants certain dessert, and we’re saying no to that. Or our child wants to play outside longer, and we have to bring them in. And then our child might scream and cry, demand those things that we’ve said no to, or maybe other things, not things that we can give our child at that moment, or that we want to give our child at that moment. And in that case, it is actually really important not to give in and follow the demands, because what sometimes happens, especially with a child this young, he’s only 18 months…

It’s really hard for us to make that transition from our little infant. All the needs were very straightforward, there weren’t a lot of “nos” that we had to communicate. Our infant wasn’t asserting their power with us in that way, checking out whether they have leaders. This wasn’t happening as much. And now with an 18-month-old, it’s full blown, it’s a full blown toddler. It is quite different.

And if we give in to a toddler because the toddler keeps screaming and crying, and that makes us change our mind because we really don’t feel comfortable with the screaming and crying, then we’re giving them the message that we’re afraid of them having feelings and going to those dark places. We don’t think they’re safe there, and therefore we will rescue them at some point.

We give that message without realizing it at all. And we also communicate to our child that they need to persist in those demands because at some point they’re going to find that we give in, and it’s very compelling for them to keep trying and trying to see where those boundaries are.

So, essentially, they get stuck. They get stuck screaming and crying, and continuing on because we’ve taught them that something will change if they do. And maybe that seems kinder to say, ” Oh okay, you can have this then.” Or, “I won’t go do this, I’ll carry you, or bring you with me if you’re upset,” even if I don’t want to do that, and it makes it really hard for me and it might not even be safe, me holding you in the kitchen, or having you right next to me when I’m doing something, but I give in because I feel too guilty to have you cry. I feel too afraid to have you upset.

It took me a while as a parent to realize how unkind that is, and how stuck and afraid of their emotions they can feel, because we’ve shown them we’re not okay with it, we’re not comfortable with them being disappointed or having a meltdown over not getting what they want. That isn’t the way to build resiliency.

But having those reasonable limits and allowing children to have their feelings and make their demands, not getting mad at them for doing that, really feeling safe about it… that teaches that child it’s okay to go to these darkest places. My parents think it’s okay. They love me enough to allow me to go there.

Life is full of those moments, and these boundaries that we give our child that might tip off the feelings, they’re developmentally appropriate.

So just going to the specifics of what this mother says, she says, “I encourage him to use the words he does know to ask for what he wants, and sometimes this does work.”

I don’t recommend that, because that is a very subtle way of pushing back on the feelings. I know this mother doesn’t mean to do it that way, she wants him to know that he can ask for things without getting upset, but the truth is in those moments he is upset, and he does have to be upset for whatever reason, he just does.

Trying to sort of force him out of that by saying, Just say these words. I’m not going to hear you unless you kind of snap out of this. That’s trying to bring him into a reasonable place when he’s not there. And he can’t be there. He’s in his limbic system. He’s not in his cortex thinking and reasoning, being able to say, oh yes I’ll just say the words, I don’t have to feel what I’m feeling. He feels what he’s feeling. And so, to me, it’s a little surprising that it does work sometimes, but I believe that it will work much better for both of them if she can be more accepting and perceive the emotions more positively, not as something she needs to bring him out of. That they are something she actually wants to encourage, to feel all the way and just go there.

She says, “The times I’ve tried not giving him what he’s screaming for, he ends up crying more, perhaps because he doesn’t understand why I’m not giving it to him.”

I don’t believe that’s why he’s crying more. I wonder if, when she tries not giving him what he’s screaming for, if she is in an accepting place of his emotions, with her body language, with her expression, and maybe with her words as well. She’s letting him know I hear you, you really want that. If she’s not doing that he may be crying more because she’s not hearing him, she’s not getting his message, she’s not accepting him.

But if she is accepting him, then he may cry more because he’s sharing a story right there: a story about his day, about his feelings, he’s offloading it all. So that’s very healthy. That’s what we want.

It’s very hard for us as parents, don’t think I’m saying it’s easy, because it’s not!

And then she says, “If I wait for him to calm down to give him something, it elongates the tantrum.”

So again, I’m not sure what her waiting is looking like. If it’s the kind of waiting where we’re relaxed and we’re allowing and we love our little guy right there, and just letting the feelings be, then the tantrum will go on for however long it needs to go. But again, if he senses that she’s tense or not comfortable, not receiving him, not letting him be where he is, not accepting, that could make him feel more uncomfortable. So it’s hard to know with what she’s giving me here, because I can perceive this a lot of different ways.

She said, “I’m afraid if I keep giving him things when he’s not calm, that this will get worse.”

And yes, that’s true if she is in one of the second two scenarios. 3) She’s changing her mind because of his demands, or, 2) if she’s getting caught up trying to please him and in that way pushing back on letting him have these feelings.

She says, “…and I’m concerned that he’s too young to understand what I’m trying to get across.”

And that’s where I completely agree with this mother that, yes, he’s too young to be brought into a reasonable place when he’s in his emotions. He doesn’t have that self control to be able to stop and just talk. It’s safer not to push that right now, and to trust that he will develop emotional self control. The way he will do that is by experiencing his emotions all the way, and normalizing that for himself. Feeling safe to go to these places.

The best way to create that safety is really to feel safe about it ourselves. To accept, and roll out the red carpet for him to feel whatever he’s feeling.

And yes, if we can understand what he’s saying and we can help him get what he needs in that moment, seeing that this is a need not a want or just a part of his tantrum, it’s something that he needs that we would give him anyway, then we do it. Maybe it will help him to calm down, giving into those demands.

So I agree with her that he’s too young to understand what she’s trying to get across.

She says, “I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place and I’m not sure how to communicate with him in a way that he understands and set boundaries at the same time.” So the boundaries are, again, just her giving him what he needs but not giving him what he wants when his wants clash with hers. But she doesn’t need to set boundaries around the way he expresses himself.

So I hope some of that helps.

And remember, both my books are available, as always, on audio at audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.

Also my exclusive audio series, Sessions. These are six individual recordings of consultations with parents, discussing their specific parenting issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio dot com

And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram, @JanetLansbury.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

5 Comments

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

  1. Thank you Janet, you must have been a fly on the wall in our house lately! Our 2y4mo boy has recently started completely melting down over most things… he is 0 to 100000 decibels within seconds, and has recently began hitting during the tantrums as well. He has always been extremely expressive, assertive and has had language and communication skills well beyond his years since around 13months. We never had this behaviour with our first boy, so this has taken us totally by surprise! It is usually around when he ‘wants’ – to get down himself, to open the gate first, his backpack, not to do something, the toy etc. Your article has really helped me to understand how to lovingly and supportively deal with these behaviours. I already mostly understood where it was coming from and why it was happening – but still couldn’t help but blame our parenting somewhat, and my default reaction when busy or tired etc is to be angry at him or just ignore him. Especially with he ear splitting screaming and hitting! Unfortunately sometimes there is no choice but to manhandle him screaming from his brothers school gate, or rugby hold him through the underground station, or to just keep doing what needs to be done such as dinner or driving or tending to another child… What would you suggest in these situations – when you can’t be fully present for the toddler to validate them when feeling the big feels? Just verbally validate? Thanks so much. X

  2. Thank you Janet for yet another really helpful episode! I have 18 months old twins and, surprisingly, weathering these storms has been much easier than with my first, who is now 3. Perhaps because I don’t have time to get caught up in them – there are two other children who need something at all times!
    But my question is regarding my 3 year old, who does now have the language to articulate his wants and needs. At what age do you recommend challenging the ways in which children make demands by asking for more appropriate verbal expressions (i.e. not whining, screaming, crying, when asking for something)? I feel like I have been able to embody the RIE approach, mostly, until recently with my 3 year old. It could be that I expect too much. Or, I’m overwhelmed with the quantity (and volume!) of crying and whining between the three of them and he’s an easy target because he can communicate somewhat. Either way, I do feel that I am struggling to make the transition from toddler to big kid with him and would love some insight. Thanks again ❤️

  3. My question is similar to Brooke’s…your last comment is: “But she doesn’t need to set boundaries around the way he expresses himself.” At what age (roughly) do you recommend setting those boundaries? I understand an 18 month old might be asking too late as you mentioned or can’t get the words out, needs to let the feelings go, etc. How do we safely set those boundaries for how an age appropriate child can express themselves and also let them know it’s still acceptable to have big emotions, cry if they need to and so on. I’m finding that balance difficult with my 3.5yr old.

  4. avatar Christina says:

    I have the same questions as Brooke and Jessaca above. When do we offer these important life skills of alternatives to crying or whining to handle feeling? As a mom to a 22 month old, he would get easily frustrated when trying new tasks and start to fuss and often look to ya for help. I would acknowledge that he sounded frustrated and he could say “help me” if he needed help or he could just continue to work through it. He rarely fusses when trying new things now because he can ask for help if he wants us to intervene and this can come in the form of asking questions, encouraging or helping. So is that an example of squashing his emotions? It’s such a delicate balance.

  5. Hi, I’m wondering if you would still give the same answer for an older toddler. My daughter is 32 months old and very verbal. She is easily upset and screams demands at me. When she was younger, I noticed it was mostly regarding food. For example, she would scream “I need my water” or “I want this…” It seemed she was hungry and tired. I would pass her what she wanted but I would also calmly say, “you really need your water. Mommy is here to help. You can just say “water please” and I will help.” Through tears, she would try to calmly make the request. I didn’t force it or anything. Overall, things have gotten better but she still screams orders at me sometimes. I sort of wonder now if I should demand that she ask in a nice way. The other day, she yelled at me to pass her her smoothie which was actually right in front of her and she could have picked it up on her own. I told her how she needed to ask if she wanted me to pass it to her. She refused. After quite some time…maybe 15 minutes, she picked it up herself.

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