Q&A: SCREAMING!

Today I have two questions about kids screaming and shrieking.

Brooke writes:

"My son is 14 months old.  When he was younger (about 9 months old) he use to scream A LOT (all day long)!!  I ignored it, acted like I did not even hear him and he eventually stopped.  Now he has started back to shrieking again and I am not sure what to do.  He is older now and I know he understands better.  I know giving him attention for his screaming is giving him what he wants, but when we are out and he is screaming it is so bothersome to others, so I tell him "Tyler No, No screaming!"  And of course he stops for a little while and then begins to scream at the top of his lungs again.  Should I continue to tell him "No" or just completely ignore him like I do not even hear him?  I almost feel like others around me feel like I am a Mom that is just not doing anything about her screaming child.  What would you do?"

I'd get some heavy-duty earplugs and a bottle of wine. Seriously, though, all the advice about ignoring it is great if you sit around in a soundproofed room all day, but it's not so helpful when you're out in the world and your kid is shrieking like he's being poked with a sharp stick.

He's on the young end for talking about it, but you have to start somewhere, so start rehearsing with him before you go out that "We're going to use our inside voices" when you're out and about. If he starts to scream, remind him that you're going to talk quietly. If he still keeps screaming, leave. You don't want to back yourself into any corners by threatening to leave if he screams (especially since he really can't always control his impulse to shriek at this age), and sometimes you're going to have to go back in to get the milk or whatever you were buying from the store. So don't do any threatening or ultimatums so you don't end up having to carry them out. Just calmly take him out when he screams, and then go back in if he gets calm again or if you need to complete a transaction.

You're being responsible by not allowing him to annoy others by taking him out, but you're also promoting good behavior by telling him exactly what you want him to do (talk quietly) instead of what you don't want him to do (SHRIEK!).

None of this is going to fix the problem overnight, but it's all a process at this age anyway. An annoying, mind-numbing, teeth-clenching process. Hang in there.

Jamie writes:

"My son is 8 months old and a few weeks ago he started screaming.  When I say screaming I don't mean crying - it's a deep guttural scream.  He screams whenever he's unhappy - when his diaper is being changed, he wants a bottle, we've taken something away, he's in his highchair, etc.  Because the scream is connected to an unhappy moment I understand that he's not hurt, but it's slowly chipping away at my sanity.  I've tried distracting him by singing, tickling, playing peek-a-boo.  I've tried ignoring him.  Now I pick him up and sit with him until he's done.  Yesterday he screamed until he fell asleep.  It was not near naptime or bedtime.  He screamed until his body shut down.  I don't know what to do.  Suggestions?"

It seems a little early to me for him to be reaching the phase of physical exhaustion and rage from not being able to make himself understood, but maybe he's just advanced. The inability to control himself when he's frustrated that turns into a scary physical symptom (the gutteral screaming) sounds exactly like what some older kids (young toddler age) go through when they just can't get the adults to understand what they want to communicate.

I would see if trying to help him put things into language helps. While you're doing something he doesn't like and you see him getting upset, try talking about how you imagine he feels. For example, "You don't like to have your diaper changed and it's making you feel very angry. You want to scream and kick until Mama leaves you alone!" See if that helps him feel a little more understood. If he has very good receptive language it might alleviate things a lot. Even the tone you use might make him feel more understood.

And if you haven't already started it, you might start teaching him some sign language. Some babies that age can do simple signs like "milk," more," "all done," "sleep," and others. There are books and videos you can buy (Kate's daughter adores the Signing Time series), but I'm too cheap for that, so I just look up our signs on the Michigan State University American Sign Language Browser site. It's amazing how much less frustration children have if they can make even a few of their needs known.

I hope you can help him make himself understood. It's such a rough thing for young children, and your son sounds particularly eager to communicate.