How to handle a screaming toddler

The key to staying calm when your toddler starts shrieking.

Ellen Rosenberg 0

Photo by Laura Ciapponi/Getty Images

My toddler is going through a shrieking phase: When she spots a friend; when she doesn’t want to put on her shoes; when she’s simply delighting in the sound of her own voice. I know she’s just expressing herself, and if I don’t react she tends to tone it down, but it’s hard to stay calm when we’re in public and it feels like all eyes are on us.

At 18 months, a child usually knows more than 50 words, says Elaine Weitzman, a speech-language pathologist. It only makes sense that in the absence of language, toddlers use another outlet to express how they feel. “Shrieking gives toddlers a way of communicating until a more sophisticated system kicks in,” she says.

Communication by shrieking isn’t well-received by everyone. Some people will be sympathetic to the mom with the screaming child in the grocery store, says Andrea Ramsay Speers, a parent educator in Oakville, Ont., but others feel more inconvenienced. “You want to be conscious of those around you, but balance that with your toddler’s need to express herself.”

The key to staying calm when your toddler’s vocal volume is on overdrive is to identify what kind of shrieker you have on your hands, and to have a few responses ready.

The happy shrieker
If her squeals of joy are turning others off, “pick her up in your arms and gently rub her back. It’ll offer a calming presence,” says Ramsay Speers. Or model the difference between indoor and outdoor voices, says Jen Singer, author of Stop Second-Guessing Yourself: The Toddler Years. “At the playground, say: ‘This is where we shout! Wheee!’ Back home, whisper: ‘This is where we keep our voices low.’”

The attention-seeker
You’re on the phone, but your little guy wants your undivided attention. “Reach over and pat his back, sit him up on your lap, or give him a smile or wink. This will demonstrate that you’re not ignoring him, but that he can’t be the centre of attention 100 percent of the time,” says Ramsay Speers.

The angry screamer
If your tot isn’t happy about something, appeal to her short attention span with distraction. “Pull out a book, give her a task or point to something more intriguing,” says Singer. Raising your voice will only escalate her emotions, so if all else fails, find somewhere private for her to calm down. Distraction is what works for mom Emily Ward and her toddler son, Ethan. “If he’s upset about having to come inside, I’ll give him a moment, but then switch gears and suggest we find some stickers.” Either way, she’s not too fazed. “In a strange way, it’s comforting to see him going through this normal stage — even if it’s not the most enjoyable one!”

A version of this article was published in our August 2012 issue under the headline: “The scream” (p. 50). For more on Toddler Behaviour, check out our community boards.

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