My one year old has learned that
screaming is a delightful activity. I,
however, am not as enamored but I
don't know how to discourage it. He
screams for EVERYTHING! Can't
reach his ball? SCREAM. Wants
more water? SCREAM. Needs to
be held? SCREAM. I tried to ignore
him when he screamed, but I soon
realized that I'd be ignoring him all
day because he hasn't learned any
words yet and has stopped using
cute gibberish. Probably because
the screaming is so effective. What
can I do to curb this behavior?
Young children use behavior to get their wants and needs met because they don’t yet have the language to communicate and express themselves. While babies use crying to tell you they are hungry or wet, toddlers use whining or screaming. The goal is to teach them to use gestures and/or words to express themselves, which will eventually replace the screaming behavior.
The only way for children to learn to use words is by first modeling the skill (e.g., saying the word and/or using the gesture before giving the child the object) and repetition (i.e., every time, every day). For example, if you know that your son wants to be held, you could say, “You want to be picked up?” as you raise your arms in the air; or if he is starting to say one word approximations, you could say “Up” and encourage him to repeat you before you pick him up—and do this with him every time, every day.
Many parents also find it helpful to teach sign language for the words “more” and "give me” to help their children make requests before they have language. You can find video examples of these signs at signingsavvy.com. It is best to teach your child signs and gestures at times when they are not already screaming or exhibiting tantrum behavior (e.g., mealtimes and play time). For example, you can make a game out of lifting your son “up” and down and teach him to put his arms in the air before you pick him up as a part of the game. This way, when he starts to scream, you can say, “up” and hope that he will stop screaming and put his arms up in the air instead—or at least that would be the goal.
The best way to reduce an undesirable behavior is to give your child less opportunities to practice it. Try your best to anticipate what your child wants before he screams and then show the object to him and provide him with the gesture and word to use before giving him the object. At times when he is already screaming, stay calm and in a neutral tone try to put into words what you think he is trying to say. "You want the ball but you can't reach it. Let me get it for you." Although he may not understand you, your voice and actions will help him feel heard and may reduce the screaming as well.
The real key is to be consistent. Many parents try things a handful of times and then determine that they aren't working. Your child will learn eventually if you are patient and keep at it. Within a few months you will start to see a reduction in the screaming behavior and a growth in his communication skills.
Best of luck,
Dr. B has a doctorate in school psychology specializing in early childhood development. If you have a question that you would like to ask Dr. B, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header ASK DR. B.