5 Tips for When Your Toddler Won't Stop Screaming
1. Assess the situation.
It may feel arbitrary in the moment, but there is a reason your child is acting this way. Do a quick replay of your day, and try to determine how they may be feeling. Are they over-stimulated, tired, frustrated, bored, hungry? Be honest with yourself, and nonjudgemental toward yourself and your child. Has the day been mega stuffed with activities? Did they have enough protein in their last meal? Could they feel like they haven't gotten enough attention or stimulation? Remember that both ends of the pendulum can lead to undesired behavior. Too much stimulation/attention/food can be just as overwhelming as too little stimulation/attention/food.
2. Acknowledge their feelings.
Once you feel like you may have an understanding of why your child is screaming at the top of their lungs, help them label the underlying feeling.
Try saying things like:
“You seem tired. We've had a busy day today. Let me finish _______ then we can take a break to read a book/watch a show/sit on the front porch swing ” Protip: if your child's response is immediately "I'M NOT TIIRREEDDDD" they're definitely tired.
“I feel like you may be bored. I know you want to be there already, and I promise you I do too. We have X more minutes/hours. Maybe we should sing this song/play this game/close our eyes and rest”
“You seem frustrated. It is super frustrating when you don't get what you want, but this is not how we act. Would you like this toy/snack/activity instead?”
“You seem upset. ”
A couple things I say sprinkled in when :
“I love you too much to let you act this way.”
“You may not act this way/scream at me/hit people.”
Seize the playportunites to teach your child life skills before the screaming starts. It may sound strange to talk about life skills when relating to toddlers, but loud and quiet are such basic skills that most of us don't even think about the fact that we had to learn the difference between them. Play games together to help your child understand what is loud and what is quiet.
Label sounds when you hear them. "That motor is loud. I'm glad its outside." "This bug is so quiet I don't even hear it crawling"
Before transitioning to a new location ask your child what the appropriate volume is for this place. "We're going to the playground, do we get to be loud there?" "We're getting on an airplane today, is that where we talk LOUD or use our quiet voice?"
Louder! This can be played several ways. Sometimes I crouch down with the kids and whisper "quiet" and gradually stand up to end fully standing with my arms stretch straight up. As I'm standing I say " louder, Louder, LOUDER, LOUDER!!!" so my body size reflects the volume of my words. Then I reverse the process and say "LOUD!" and gradually make my posture smaller while saying "quieter, quieter, quieter, so quiet."
Another way to play this game is with instruments. Using a drum is my favorite, but you can use whatever you have on hand. Start by playing the instrument quietly while saying "quiet". Gradually play louder while labeling the sound "louder, Louder, LOUDER, SO LOUD!!!". Then reverse the process from loud to quiet labeling the volume along the way.
Do a practice run. Practice going wherever or doing whatever is typically a catalyst to your child's screaming. Try to make it a low stakes event. Don't make the practice run when you're buying the whole week's groceries, and don't do a trial with a house full of people or at a friend's party where you hope your children are on their best behavior.
4. Praise progress.
We all love hearing when we've done something well especially if its something we have worked hard to achieve. Your children are no different in this regard. When you've had a trip to the store, a flight, or an entire meal without a hands over the ears screaming meltdown, let them know you noticed. Praise their hard work. The conversation could look something like this "We walked through the whole grocery store, and got everything we needed. You were so helpful, and did a great job using your quiet voice! Are you so proud of your hard work?"
Having these conversations with your child will help them develop the language they need to communication instead of having a meltdown. If your child is 2 or older and does not have a least 50 words they use to communicate, please consider contacting a speech therapist to do an early intervention evaluation. If you're in the Dallas area, please feel free to contact me and I will give you a current list of the speech therapists I recommend.
5. Stay Calm.
Its hard, I know. I promise you I know. I've done more yoga breathing while being screamed at by a toddler than I've done actual yoga. Staying calm yourself shows your child the behavior you would like them to emulate during stressful situations. It also helps to keep your current situation from escalating to the point where either or both of you spiral out of control. Using a calm neutral but firm tone when speaking to your kids eliminates some of the perceived power struggle of high stress situations.
Try not to give attention (positive or negative) to your child's screaming, tantrums, or meltdowns. You can say something along the lines of "I'm having a hard time understanding you when you scream. Can you try using your quiet voice?" "You may not speak to me this way. I am happy to help you when you stop screaming." If you're not feeling patient enough for all of this, walk away. Many people will tell you that if your child is screaming that means they need you, and you should cater to their needs in the situation. But remember that whole speech flight attendants give about putting your own oxygen mask on first? That applies here too. If you need a minute to calm down, take it. Make sure your child is safe, or that another responsible adult can attend to the situation and calm down.
When you compose yourself enough to have capacity for the situation, return and communicate with everyone. Thank the other adult for taking over when you needed a moment. Let your child know that you needed space to calm down. At this point reassess the situation, and jump in wherever is most appropriate. Parenting is hard work, but you've got this!
Want more help tackling this or any other obstacle your family is currently working through? Contact us. It takes a village, and Big Picture Parenting is part of yours.
If you found the above post helpful, you may be interested in reading more about calming anxiety. Here is an excerpt from another post:
Big feelings can have big reactions, and sometimes those big reactions come at a time that seems like it is in no way associated with the big feelings catalyst. For instance, our youngest gets excited (and a bit nervous) about going back to school, and does the most Ace Ventura Pet Detective things with his body. He walks through the house contorting himself as if Jim Carrey has inhabited a 10 year old’s body, and will require a formal exorcism to remove. Not gonna lie, I hate it. So we have adopted this conversation, “Your body is showing me that you’re really excited. Please work on controlling your body, and let’s think of another way you can show us how excited you are.”
Click here to continue reading the rest of this post about calming anxiety.