You asked and you shall now receive. It’s only fair for us to share all of this stored up knowledge about a toddlers and what happens when they start toddling (and talking)! We now will answer, in a very public forum, all of those burning questions about children in their second year. Each Wednesday, we will tackle a commonly-asked-question from the point of view of a parent with a toddler. Chiming in to give her feedback will be an expert who has been there and done that. Earmark, share and add your own input to today’s question; it’s good karma.
My toddler screams out in public. How do I get her to stop?
Expert: Marsha Greenberg
There can be a lot of possible answers to this question. Is this a playful behavior or a strong-reaction-to-something behavior. If this is a more stressful behavior I would think about her temperament and ask yourself some questions.
Is this a new reaction or a similar reaction couched in a different behavior pattern? Some children have a difficult time regulating to change, increased stimulation and sound. If this sounds like a possible part of your toddler’s temperament then the screaming may be a toddler-type reaction to a pre-existing challenge for your child. If this is the case try a few days with small walks outside to see if she can tolerate smaller amounts of time outside. Try to notice any other patterns that may indicate she is working hard to adjust to changes. We cannot change temperament but we can help children make accommodations to different situations. This may take time and hard work on our part to contain are own frustration or embarrassment over our children’s behavior.
If this is not a typical reaction for your toddler, see if you can think about something that may have startled her over the last few days or weeks: it could be the change in temperature, a bug touching her skin, a loud siren she reacted to. Sometimes, even for toddlers who have had these experiences before, something can set them off and create a domino effect. If you think it may be something like this try to talk about it in toddler terms – try to experiment with words like – “I know you are screaming because you did not like the bug that landed on your arm. It will be ok. Bugs fly away. Shoo fly, go back to the flowers.” This helps toddlers especially after 18 months or so when their ability to understand language is often stronger than their ability to express more complicated thoughts or feelings. You may have to repeat this a lot until she is able to hold the idea.
If this is a playful behavior can you ignore it? Does it stop after a few minutes? Is it excitement? If the behavior is difficult to ignore try to contain your own feelings and return home and try saying, “I know you like to scream. We cannot go out to the park when you scream next time.” Your child may be upset but – especially with an older toddler – they will begin to understand cause and effect.
Marsha Greenberg M.S., M.S. W
Marsha is a therapist in New York City. She is the author of the newly released book, Raising Your Toddler, by Globe Pequot Press. She has masters degrees in Child and Family Development and Social Work from the University of Michigan. As the Director of the Health Systems Child Care Program for over 14 years, she was responsible for over 250 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 years of age. Marsha teaches in the Early Childhood Special Education department at NYU and has a private psychotherapy practice in NYC. Marsha is the mother of three grown sons and has three grandsons (aged 4 and 18 months and 4 months) with a new grandchild on the way.