How to handle a screaming toddler

For any parent, managing a yelling toddler may be extremely difficult and irritating. You want to scream because of the high-pitched cries, the thrashing limbs, and the tears! However, before you reach your breaking point, remember to breathe deeply and that this too shall pass.

The Reasons Behind the Screams:

To properly address this behavior, it’s critical to comprehend the reasons behind the screams. Toddlers have big emotions in small bodies. When they feel frustration, anger, hunger, or exhaustion, their underdeveloped language ability limits verbal communication. Screaming speaks for them.

Common causes include:

  1. Big Emotions:
  2. Toddlers experience anger, sadness, fear, and other intense emotions but cannot yet name or tame those complex feelings. Screams act as their outlet when overcome by feelings.

  3. Seeking Attention:
  4. Negative attention still meets their goal of getting your eyes on them. Screams grab focus when they crave interaction.

  5. Sensory Overload:
  6. Loud noises, scratchy clothes, bright lights – things adults filter out can feel like assaults to their young nervous systems. Screams protest the unbearable sensory input.

  7. Testing Limits:
  8. Discovering cause-and-effect relationships, like realizing screams trigger reactions from caregivers, serves developmentally. Screams help them figure out this whole new world.

  9. Communicating Needs:
  10. Hunger, exhaustion, physical discomfort – screams send the only signal they have for saying, “I need something right now!” when language fails them.

    While maddening, they aren’t intentionally giving parents a hard time. Screaming is normal, if difficult, toddler behavior as they navigate intense emotions, limited communication ability, and a stimulating new world. It signifies development in progress.

Tips for Handling Screaming Toddlers:

  1. Remain calm:
  2. It’s easier said than done, but do your best not to raise your voice or lose control. Your calm presence will help diffuse the situation. Taking deep breaths helps!

  3. Make sure basic needs are met:
  4. Is your toddler hungry, tired, or due for a diaper change? Meet those basic needs first. Offer a snack, take them to lie down, and change their diaper. Sometimes, that’s all a screaming meltdown needs.

  5. Pay attention before the scream:
  6. Learn to identify the signs that a tantrum is brewing – rubbing eyes, crankiness, etc. You may be able to head it off by intervening with something soothing.

  7. Validate the feeling behind the scream:
  8. Let your toddler know you understand they are struggling, even if you don’t understand why. “I know you’re feeling really angry right now. I’m here to help.” Hearing you connect with their emotions can help diffuse the situation faster.

  9. Have them take deep breaths with you:
  10. Breathing exercises can help calm a tense toddler. Exaggerate, taking deep breaths in and out while counting slowly. It gives them something to mirror. The deep breathing naturally relaxes the body.

  11. Speak softly:
  12. Lower your voice to encourage them to lower theirs. Screaming begets more screaming. Show them a quieter tone, which is more effective right now.

  13. Offer distractions:
  14. Depending on the situation, provide toys, books, or other engaging items to redirect their attention and frustrations in a positive way. Even something as simple as pointing out a dog out the window can interrupt the screaming.

  15. Give clear choices:
  16. Instead of demands, give your toddler two positive options to choose from, like “Do you want to sit with your red car or blue car while you calm down?” Giving choices allows them to feel in control when they otherwise don’t.

  17. Give them space if needed:
  18. Sometimes, toddlers need to work through their big emotions on their own for a few minutes. Let them know you are right there whenever they are ready for your help. Stay close by, but don’t force interaction.

  19. Avoid giving into demands:
  20. If they are screaming about wanting ice cream and you know sugar isn’t a good idea right now, stay firm in your boundaries. Giving in teaches them screaming is an effective strategy to get what they want.

  21. Practice time-ins over time-outs:
  22. Rather than sending them away alone to cry, bring them close in a loving embrace. This shows you are on their team trying to work through the hard stuff together.

  23. Praise good behavior when they calm down:
  24. Let them know you noticed and appreciate they got their emotions under control, even if it took a while! Positive reinforcement goes a long way.

  25. Physical Comfort and Closeness:
  26. While some children need space to cool down, others respond well to physical soothing. Try gentle rocking, hugging, patting their back, or just sitting together quietly. Sometimes, having your calm physical presence reassuringly nearby is what they crave when upset. Having comfort items on hand, like a security blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, or even photos of family members, can help, too. Offer the soothing item and say, “Let’s take some nice deep breaths together with Mr. Bear.” Read their cues to determine if physical comfort helps or heightens their emotional state.

  27. Setting Gentle but Firm Limits:
  28. If the screaming persists despite attempts to comfort, soothe, or distract, set clear boundaries in a non-antagonistic way. Make eye contact, use a kind tone and say “I see you are very sad right now. I am going to keep you safe, but it is not ok to scream and hit like this. When you are able to use your words or take some big deep breaths instead, I am ready to listen and help.” This makes expectations clear without escalating, modeling emotional intelligence. If they cross boundaries of safety, let them know natural consequences will follow, like having to hold your hand or leave a fun place temporarily until their body calms down.

  29. Giving Them Choices to Feel Empowered:
  30. Even in the peak of a meltdown, toddlers crave maintaining some sense of autonomy. Offer choices appropriate to their age and the situation whenever you can. Say, “Would you like water or apple juice in the red cup or blue cup?” Or “When you are ready, do you want to pick out the book or hold the stuffed animal?” Provide options that allow them to positively channel the “I do it myself!” independence streak coming through. This diminishes explosive reactions stemming from feeling out of control.

  31. Being Proactive and Consistent:
  32. Watch closely for signs of frustration building, like eye rubbing, thumb sucking, or crankiness. Head off outright screaming by stepping in with positive distractions or emotional labeling ahead of time. Say, “Uh oh, it looks like someone’s feeling tired and grumpy. Let’s rock and snuggle a bit.” Identify and avoid triggers like hunger or overstimulation when possible. Implement the same techniques consistently over time so they learn what to expect from you and how to effectively self-soothe.

  33. Ignoring Attention-Seeking Screams:
  34. For attention-seeking shrieks, set the boundary clearly once, then pivot their focus elsewhere. Say, “I cannot let you scream. When you are ready to ask nicely, I will listen.” Then, actively engage them in an activity without reacting to ongoing whines for attention. This teaches them screaming unrelentingly does not work to get your constant focus. Redirect them calmly and show interest as soon as polite behavior begins.

Take them outdoors for a reset. Fresh air, new scenery, and open space do wonders to reset an overwhelmed toddler’s brain. Bring them outside and let them release some energy in appropriate ways.

Take care of yourself, too.

When nothing seems to console their screaming, put them in a safe place like their crib for a few minutes and walk away to recenter yourself first. Splash cold water on your face, breathe deeply, and remind yourself this stage will pass! You’ve got this, parent! Just take it one scream at a time.

The key is remaining patient, empathetic, consistent, and calm. It’s easier said than done, but over time and with these tools in your toolbox, the screaming phase should dissipate. Of course, if it becomes consistent and concerning behavior, do consult your pediatrician for additional guidance.

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