Annie – I’d like to know how to handle a child that screams. Specifically, my 19 month old niece has a screaming problem. She will for no reason scream and it is a piercing scream and her parents don’t know what to do about it. It is very disruptive and when we are all having dinner she inevitably does it. Her parents say she does it at home as well at dinner and I believe at other times as well. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for it, it just all of a sudden happens. Otherwise she is a good girl, happy and well adjusted. It has been going on for quite some time. Any suggestions from you to stop this from happening would be appreciated. I look forward to your response. Thank you. Linda
Thanks for your letter. Here are my thoughts: First of all, it sounds for the most part as though you have an lovely little girl for a niece. Whenever a child exhibits a behaviour over and over again it’s because in some way that behaviour is working for her and garners attention. It’s amazing how children use things that work for them to their advantage and explaining how and why they do this in multiple different ways forms a definitive part of what I do when I do an intervention. In your niece’s case, she’s getting a rather fun reaction from her screams, certainly enough to keep doing it. Maybe mom and dad cover their ears or wince rather obviously or raise their voice to compensate or have any number of other reactions. If those reactions are compelling enough, she’ll certainly enjoy the cause and effect she’s creating. What a fun game!
Remove the positive reinforcement
So how to get her to stop? Well, you have to remove the positive reinforcement that she’s getting from the behaviour. So, that means one of two things. The first option is for everyone to ignore it so well that they could apply to acting school. But first they have to isolate her from being in public while they sort it out. That means every time she does it, they act as if nothing has happened and carry on as usual. Most often this doesn’t work because frankly it’s very hard to act that well and not look pained when someone is screaming in your ear, so most people are left with the second option.
So what’s option number two? That option would be to look in the eye and say ‘no’ calmly but firmly. If she stops quickly, great. If not, simply remove her to an assigned spot. The assigned spot doesn’t have to be in another room, just isolated from what’s going on and far enough away to take the edge off. Take her there firmly and avoid eye contact. Say something simple calmly like “If you make that horrid noise, you’ll have to sit over there.” This is a good time to start this as she’s 19 months now and just about to enter the two year old age group where she’ll be floating any number of trial balloons, from temper tantrums to other typical two year old behaviours. Therefore, it’s important to treat the screaming the same way the parents plan to go about dealing with the emergence of any other negative behaviours.
Plan for it
When the parents first start this she will come out, so the trick is to plan for that and stay close by. The only way they can stay close by but not give her negative attention (which is what she’s looking for) is by being busily occupied doing something else. This is where the parents get to practice their acting skills again. The trick is to sort some laundry nearby or fold some towels, clean the baseboards, whatever. Close enough they can react to her without looking as though they are expecting her to disobey them. So, if she comes out, her parents should replace her calmly no matter how long it takes. Make her sit for a minute or two but don’t forget they shouldn’t hover. Once they think she’s got the point, she can be told to come out and once she does, her infraction should be quickly forgotten.
Calm consistency is everything
Consistency however is key. If she screams in the grocery store, suggest to her parents they simply warn her quietly and if it doesn’t stop remove her to a ‘spot’. Let her sit on the floor and kick her feet or whatever. Tell Mom and Dad to look totally unfazed and put a cart between themselves and her, then look busy shopping staying close but really studying those bottles of tomato ketchup nearby for calorie content. The important part is to leave her with the impression that her negative behaviour will never prevent an adult from doing what they set out to do. It’s amazing how fast children clue in. If she’s good, it helps if mom and dad offer lots of encouragement and an opportunity to join in. If she’s naughty, her parents need to respond calmly, firmly and consistently. For more help with your parenting, please visit my parenting services page.
Hope this helps.
Best of luck,