What to do with Screaming Toddlers

That's my daughter at 18 months. She was a great screamer.

A friend recently confided that her toddler’s screaming is making her crazy. He screams when he doesn’t get his way, when someone sits too close to his mama, when someone tells him “no.” She described it as a “high pitch ear deafening scream.”

Sound familiar?

If you have ever had a toddler, it probably does. Toddlers love to scream. But why? And what, if anything, can you do to stop it?

Why all the commotion?
Let’s look at a few of the reasons a toddler may scream.

  1. It makes them feel big. To be so little and make such a big noise can be really empowering.
  2. They don’t have the words to adequately express what they need to say. Screaming is faster and easier than trying to say “That’s my mama, and I need her all to myself right now.”
  3. They can’t yet make sense of their really big feelings. Disappointment is hard for adults to deal with. For toddlers, screaming is sometimes the only way they can think of to let people know that they really feel awful.
  4. They have no perspective. Toddles have no sense of time. They believe that the present moment is the only moment for all of eternity. If they feel awful right now, they don’t know that life will be okay in just a few minutes. This is the same phenomenon that leads to a toddler laughing happily before the tears are even dry on his little face. Because when they feel good, they don’t remember feeling bad. This is a skill that develops throughout the toddler and preschool years.

Make it Stop!
Great. So we have some ideas about why they scream, but how can we make it stop? You probably can’t completely stop a toddler from screaming, but there are some things you can try to help keep the screaming to a minimum.

  1. Give them the words they need. Baby sign language can be a big help for toddlers – even those who have started to talk. Signs for “help” and “please” and “more” can give them an effective way to ask for what they need without screaming. When your toddler is screaming because he dropped something and can’t reach it, say “Oh! You need help. Say ‘help!'” While modeling the sign. Don’t expect your toddler to stop screaming and sign help. Go ahead and help him. You can work on getting him to actually use the word and/or sign another time when he’s not freaking out.
  2. Help them label the big feelings. Labeling emotions is the first step is learning to regulate them. If your child is screaming because you took something away from him, say “You’re mad! You’re mad and disappointed because you want mommy’s phone!”
  3. Compassionately acknowledge his negative feelings. Don’t tell him he’s okay. Don’t tell him to stop being mad. Let him know you understand why he’s upset. “I’m sorry. You want mommy’s phone. Mommy’s phone is cool and you want it.”
  4. Help him move into the next moment. While you want to let your kid feel what he feels, you don’t want him to get stuck there. Once you’ve acknowledged why he’s upset, see if you can help him move past it. Distraction is a good tool for the younger child. Maybe you can find an acceptable substitute for the desired object. A more verbal child might benefit from a game of fantasy play where you magically grant his wish – “I wish I could give you 100 phones just for you! What would you do with all of those phones?”

Toddlers lack the maturity and self control necessary to gracefully handle upset and disappointment. If we react compassionately and patiently and teach them the skills they need to manage these challenging situations, we are doing our future society a favor. With our love and guidance, today’s screaming toddlers can become tomorrow’s peaceful, well-adjusted adults.

Have some experience with screaming toddlers? Please share your tips for stopping the noise!

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