If you’ve ever had a toddler, chances are, you’ve been the lucky recipient of their “screaming phase.” Note, I didn’t say tantrum phase. No, there is a brand of toddler screeching that has little or sometimes nothing to do with a full-on meltdown about not being able to take home the Paw Patrol water bottle they’ve been toting around Target for 45 minutes. Here, we’re talking about your standard-issue, oft-unprovoked, top-of-the-lungs communication they sometimes favor between the ages of 2 and 4, that can stop as suddenly as it starts, but is nonetheless awful for its duration.
While at times it’s evident why toddlers scream—they wanted to put on their backpack themselves and you helped, you monster—at other times, it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason, whether logical or not. It could be because they want attention, feel like they need to shout to be heard (hello, third child), are frustrated or overly excited, or simply have learned it’s a reliable way to get a reaction out of their otherwise busy parents.
The important thing to remember is that it’s normal for the age, and should not be countered with your own screaming. (This will only scare them, demonstrate that the loudest person wins, give them a bad example of how to handle the urge, and create more of the same. We speak from experience.) So what can you do instead?
Toddlers are exuberant creatures and sometimes they just need to let it out. In Offspring, Lifehacker’s Facebook parenting group, one parent suggested letting them “practice easy songs at home and sing them round and round at different volumes.” Giving them a safe way to practice managing their voice without repercussions will help them better understand how to control their volume when you need them to.
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What toddler doesn’t love a game? First, practice using your loud voice together. (If you’re up for it, you can even have a “Let’s see who can yell the loudest” competition.) Then flip it and see who can whisper best. With repetition, and consistent exposure to the act of whispering, they’ll understand exactly what you mean when you ask them to whisper in a library. (If they resist because they enjoy mischievously denying requests, or simply for the fun of being loud in a quiet place, ask if they can sound like a kitten, snake, fish, or any other quiet animal.)
Take the classic “inside voice” a step further by bringing your toddler outside whenever they are screaming. Not in an angry, time-out kind of way; in a “Oh, you want to use your outside voice? Let’s go outside so you can scream” kind of way. If you commit to this, the sudden change of location may surprise your kid enough that they’ll no longer feel the need to shriek. Stay upbeat, not punishment-oriented, so they can positively learn yelping isn’t for inside.
What happens when they want to howl while you dine al fresco? Be sure to have a separate conversation before eating outdoors so they understand this outside is different because there are so many people close by.
Sometimes the shrieks are due to excess pent-up energy. When you can tell they’re feeling a bit shouty, take them out for a quick energy-releasing runaround, or conduct a lightning round of jumping jacks or Simon Says in your kitchen.
Another approach is to quiet yourself so they’ll endeavor to match your voice. As they get louder, your voice gets softer. As a general rule, refrain from yelling across the house to get their attention. Whenever you can, walk to where they are, so they won’t get habituated to loudness in the house as a matter of course. (Easier said than done, we know.)
Whatever feeling is driving the screaming—whether happiness, anger, or something in between—getting down at eye-level and validating what they’re going through can work wonders. We all want to be seen and heard, and a simple “I know you want to go home” or “I know you want a different color cup” can soften the urge to rage.
The standard advice is not to give in to any requests or demands made while screaming, lest we teach our kids that’s the fastest way to get what they want. And this is 100% valid. But when the screeching is too frequent or too thought-piercing, give your child another chance to communicate. If they’re able to repeat it in a “nice voice” (inside voice, or regular voice, whatever verbiage works for you), or simply a less shrill one, it can be worth it to give them the thing.
Because while the main end goal is to stop the screaming—and it will stop, we are told—the secondary goal is to preserve parental sanity while we wait for that blessed day to arrive.