Kids Who Scream

Tips To Bring Back The Peace And Quiet

Yummy Mummy Melissa from Castlegar, BC asks:

How can I get my 11-month old son to stop screeching at the top of his lungs? Sometimes he does it for fun...sometimes when mad but it is ear piercing and continuous...ALL DAY! Help!


Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert, Alyson Schafer answers:

Children of this age have so few ways to communicate, and they are easily frustrated. They have growing desires to explore but are held back by their lagging motor skills and inabilities. They can also be screaming in pain, and you may want to have a doctor rule out any underlying problems like an ear infection.

However, most screaming at this age is just that instant random shriek that makes us hit the ceiling. Think about your reactions to your son’s screaming. You probably scrunch your face, maybe even cover your ears, give him an exasperated look and then comment or remind them with a terse “stop that” “no screaming!” “that is too loud”. Your child knows from your reactions that you have heard them, and that you are displeased. Bingo! That is their objective. They have your attention. Even an 11 month can figure out that if they act nicely, they get ignored, so if you want mom’s engagement, do something annoying. And yes, screeching is damn annoying.

So, now that we understand the child’s purpose we can change things up. The trick lies in focusing on changing our behaviours, not theirs. After all, if the audience fails to pay attention to their annoyance, their screaming tactic is proven futile and they will abandon the behaviour. In fact, deaf parents who really can’t hear their children’s screaming have children who don’t scream, but they shake and vibrate things to annoy their parents instead.

As a nursery school teacher, I worked with a lot of children who were screamers, well – for their first week anyway. We were trained to not make the stereotypical knee-jerk reactions to a screamer: no eye glares, no covering ears, no nagging or reminding of their volume. Presto – in a few days every child I worked with stopped their shrieks, discovering it didn’t have the same effective on their teachers as it did at home with mom and dad.

Now remember, and this is really important; these little babes have so few ways to communicate and they are trying in their own way to accomplish something with these loud painful noises and we must be mindful of that and honor that we need to show them alternatives.

If they are shrieking in a way that seems to say “I am mad that I can’t reach that toy – hand it to me” I would ignore the scream and demand to have something passed and instead simply go about my business. The minute they were calm I would say “would you like that toy? then hand them the toy and go about the exchange as if it was happening with a child who was NOT screaming. You may even say “thanks for pointing so quietly”, noticing the good behaviour you’d like to see more of, and down grading attention to behavior you’d liked stopped.

Give your child positive attention when they are not demanding it, and ignore the annoying behaviours. This is how we separate the deed from the doer, or ignore a behaviour without ignoring the child. The scream has been ignored and not reacted to, but the needs of the child have been attended to.

Good Luck!

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Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canadas leading parenting experts. She is the Ask an Expert for Todays Parent Magazine and the author of three best selling parenting books, including Honey, I Wrecked The Kids and Ain't Misbehavin'.