When it comes to parenting, I would bet that dealing with a screaming kid is not on your list of favorite activities. However, the more you know about where that screaming behavior comes from, the better equipped you will be to support your child through it.
In order to better understand how to do this, I interviewed six parenting experts from around the world to ask them for their best advice on how to help your screaming kid.
Read on for the 6 key ways to approach meltdowns and stop your child from screaming. ?????
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Many parents want to know how to stop their child from screaming. But the truth is, once your child hits emotion overload, there is no quick fix.
When your child loses their cool, it simply means they are dealing with more than they can handle. They are not trying to annoy, hurt, or embarrass you, though their behaviors may seem to say otherwise. On the contrary, their screams are a literal cry for help, and that help needs to come from you.
You might get frustrated with your screaming kid, convinced that they should know better. But it helps to remember that they have less coping skills, life experience, and brain development than you. Even a seemingly tiny problem can feel like the end of the world to your screaming kid.
Because children lack the brain development to process emotion in integrated ways, they tend to act out their feelings versus activating the thinking side of their brain to self-regulate. They simply cannot find the words to fully express or understand what they are feeling.
That is where you come in.
You must provide the calm, rational support they require. Helping them return to baseline with your soothing energy will help your child develop a system for how to experience their emotions. Additionally, when you model ways to safely self-regulate, you promote skill-building and brain development that will aid them later in life.
When your child is screaming, it is super stressful for all involved. I know for me, when my daughter loses control and launches into a full-blown screaming episode, my stress level skyrockets. My anxiety goes up and I start to panic. If I’m not careful, I’m likely to do anything to make the screaming stop.
I’m sure you can relate.
And that’s why arming yourself with information is key in helping your screaming kid. When you hit that desperate zone, you are bound to do something that will pretty much guarantee those bouts of screaming will stick around for a while.
According to Colleen Gianneski, LCSW, Program Director of the Child and Family Counseling Center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, managing your child’s meltdowns does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. Remember to take into account your child’s age as well as whether their basic needs have been met.
Here is what Colleen says about responding to your screaming child:
There are important things to consider before thinking about how to respond to your child’s meltdown, such as:
If you have an infant or toddler who is melting down, I would recommend starting with their basic needs. If their basic needs are met, I would then recommend assisting your child by providing comfort through words or actions.
Finally, I would use distraction to help your child engage in an activity they enjoy. I would not recommend ignoring infant/toddler meltdowns, as meltdowns are most often their attempt to communicate with you that something is wrong or they need your help.
For older children, we sometimes recommend ignoring meltdowns that are in response to discipline or associated with negative attention-seeking behaviors. When ignoring these behaviors, parents should be on the lookout for opportunities to praise positive behaviors as soon as possible. This should reinforce to your child that positive behaviors get a lot of attention, but negative behaviors get little attention. Parents should never ignore dangerous or destructive behaviors. These behaviors require a different approach. Important things to remember are:
First, try to remain calm yourself. Then, rely on your experience regarding what has helped your child in the past. When your child is calm, talk openly about your own feelings and how you calm yourself down when angry, frustrated, or upset.
Practice some calm down activities at home when your child is not upset. Encourage your child to identify their own feelings at home by using pictures or words. (For more on how to do this, check out this amazing collection of emotional intelligence activities from Lemon Lime Adventures, or try Feelings in a Flash – Emotional Intelligence Flashcard Game from Brybelly Games that teaches empathy, coping skills, and social skills. Get the flashcard game on Amazon here.)
Finally, take care of yourself. Parenting is challenging. Meltdowns are not a reflections of you as a parent. Make sure you are addressing your own basic needs. Be kind to yourself, use your supports and don’t be afraid to ask for help!
If you are having difficulty finding any strategies that work for you and your child, talk to your child’s pediatrician. Your pediatrician can provide advice and/or connect you with a behavioral specialist.
Founder of drpsychmom.com, private practice in Maryland (drsamantharodman.com), and mom of 3 stepmom of 1, Dr. Samantha Rodman, (Dr. Psych Mom), says it’s important to give the child some space, then try a kind but firm approach to offer simple choices.
Here is what Dr. Psych Mom has to say about approaching your screaming kid:
For many parents, staying near a loud tantrum is extremely dysregulating and can lead to you doing things you will regret, like screaming back at your child. Take a moment to regroup if you find your blood pressure rising, even if that just means going to the bathroom for 30 seconds. Wait and try to count to at least ten in your head. This will reduce the chances that you will escalate the conflict.
Next, respond in a kind and firm way, restating your point but then redirecting the child to something else. Example: ‘Yes, we do have to leave the playground now. I’m going to put on a DVD in the car though, do you want to choose?’
For more awesome advice from Dr. Psych Mom, visit her website drpsychmom.com.
Robbin McManne, Certified Parenting Coach and founder of Parenting for Connection, recommends that you support your screaming child by accepting the meltdown for what it is. Once you have the right frame, you will be ready to help your child ride it out.
Here is what Robbin has to say about meltdowns:
It’s important for parents to recognize that meltdowns are normal and natural for kids. They don’t know how to deal with or articulate what’s going on with them, so when their emotions build up to a breaking point, they have a built-in pressure valve called a meltdown!
In order for them to get through it, they need to travel all the way through the meltdown until they have let it all out, so they can be calm. I always say they are like a train going through a tunnel of emotion. They need to get to the other side. But as parents, it’s inconvenient for us to wait it out. In our own lives, when we see an emotional tunnel coming, we want to run from it, numb ourselves while we go through it, find a different way around it and so on.
The best way to handle a meltdown is to accept it. Yup! I know that’s not what many parents want to hear but accepting it is the key. Also understanding that this is NOT BEHAVIOR, it’s emotions. They aren’t trying to manipulate or control you.
If you can say to your child, “You are so upset right now and you need to cry it out. I’ll stay right here with you until you feel better.” This is what will shorten a meltdown! Fighting it, pleading for it to end, shaming your child or punishing them for a meltdown is not the way to stop them or shorten them. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself!
When faced with a screaming kid, let me start with what NOT to do! Don’t tell your child to “use your words” or “just cut it out” because they can’t! If your child is in full meltdown mode, they don’t have the words or the ability to calm down or regulate their emotions. In fact, it isn’t until your child is 7 that the part of the brain that’s responsible for emotional regulation, reasoning, and rational thought STARTS to grow and doesn’t finish growing until mid-twenties.
For parents to expect rational behavior from their kids who don’t have fully grown brains causes a lot of frustration and disappointment. We need to see our kids as needing our help. This will help us to be more kind, compassionate, and patient.
When your child is really upset, has a meltdown or emotional outburst, it’s so helpful to validate their feelings by naming the emotion they are feeling. This is called “Name it to Tame it”. When you can name the emotion, the brain releases soothing neurotransmitters to the activated emotional part of the brain so it can calm down. You can say to your child, “I know you are so disappointed, and it’s OK to cry.”
It’s important for parents to know that while your kids are in the midst of a meltdown, it’s not the time to be parenting them. Your words will be lost because your child can’t take in what you are saying. Instead, hold the space for them, reassure them that you are here, and allow them to feel their feelings. Let the storm of the meltdown pass and then you can talk to your child about why they were upset.
For more parenting tips from Robbin McManne, check out her site at https://www.parentingforconnection.com/, email her at Robbin@parentingforconnection.com, or follow her on Instagram @robbinmcmanne_parentcoach
Dr. Lynne Kenney (@drlynnekenney) is a renowned pediatric psychologist and co-author of the fantastic parenting book, Bloom: 50 Things to Say, Think, and Do with Anxious, Angry, and Over-the-Top Kids. Dr. Kenney recommends that you make sure not to join in on the meltdown. Instead she suggests you find a way to ensure safety and model coping techniques that encourage calm energy.
Here is what Dr. Kenney has to say about responding to your child:
By the time a child is screaming, they are in overload and meltdown. The thing to do in that moment is stay calm and coregulate with the child.
In full meltdown mode, safety (both emotional and physical) is the priority. Be the calm as the tornado rages. You are there to help not join in. If the child is in one place and not running around unsafe, sit down or even lay down near the child and be their brain and body. Breathe deeply. Model calm. I would likely not add to the overwhelm with a flurry of words. Communicate with the caring presence that says ‘I see you are hurting and I am here to help’.
The work to prevent overload happens after the screaming is done and before the next episode. Our parenting book, Bloom,has a lot to add to this as you begin to understand how to identify the factors that contribute to the escalation and collaborate to prepare and prevent the next episode. You are the source that teaches your child how to regulate. This is not about the parent controlling the behavior, it’s about the parent helping the child build more adaptive skills.
Dr. Lynne Kenney is the nation’s leading pediatric psychologist in the development of classroom cognitive-physical activity programs for students grades K-8. For more amazingness from Dr. Kenney, follow her on social media, visit her website https://www.lynnekenney.com, and definitely grab a copy of her book, Bloom: 50 Things to Say, Think, and Do with Anxious, Angry, and Over-the-Top Kids. Get it here on Amazon.
Dr. Rosina McAlpine, parenting expert, CEO, and Founder of Win Win Parenting, says that parental self-care is the first step to supporting your screaming child. If you respond with calm compassion, you will not only help your child calm down, but you will model the skills required to prevent future meltdowns.
As a parent it’s really difficult to stay calm when a child is melting down if you’re tired or feeling overwhelmed yourself. So my number 1 tip is for parents to first take care of themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally, so they have the physical energy and the positive mindset to support their child through a meltdown. Whether it’s a toddler tantrum in the candy aisle at the supermarket, or a teenager meltdown about a social media post, by getting angry or walking away in overwhelm, parents aren’t helping the child to calm down and resolve the situation. When parents respond with calm compassion and tools to support their child, they are great role-models. This modeling helps rather than escalates the situation, and teaches children skills for life success.
The first thing a parent can do when faced with a screaming kid is to discover by trial and error, what is most helpful to calm theirchild down. Every child is different and each parent needs to learn what works best for their child. Some children find physical touch like a hug soothing, other children do not want to be touched at all. Some children find reassuring words helpful like, “I’m here, it will be OK, tell me what happened, we can work this out, you’re OK”.
Teaching children self-soothing techniques like breathing, counting, or shaking it off before the meltdown can be great tools to draw on during a meltdown.
Dr. Rosina McAlpine is a parenting expert, author, and working mom, who offers practical advice on a range of topics, including managing children’s use of technology, supporting healthy self-esteem and overcoming bullying. For more, visit her website at www.drrosina.com, check out her parenting courses at Win Win Parenting, or get her parenting book, Inspired Children, from Amazon here.
Flora McCormick, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Parenting Coach, Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, and founder of Sustainable Parenting, recommends a combination of bonding and structure when supporting your screaming kid. She suggests using planned ignoring thoughtfully and carefully, explaining that the key is to first figure out what is behind the screaming behavior.
Here is what Flora has to say about how to distinguish when you should try planned ignoring, and when you shouldn’t:
Both connection and limits are so needed with our young children. One tool I think is very underused is planned ignoring. If you think the screaming is from a genuine place of hurt/anger, this is NOT the tool to use. But if your gut tells you it’s their way of trying to get you to change your mind on a limit, it’s a great tool. It isn’t much fun to scream and make a scene if you don’t have an audience. So…remove the audience. ???? I know there are readers that are seeing this and feeling this is harsh and insensitive. But I’m asking you to get curious, not furious.
Think about what you believe is motivating the screaming, and if it’s a way of getting attention or trying to get you to change your mind about a limit, then you may risk rewarding that behavior with attention. And trust me, sometimes even soothing, redirecting, and reasoning are giving attention.
If you don’tthink the screaming is about attention/power, then my #1 recommendation is connect before you correct. This comes from Positive Discipline, and is based in the belief that kids who feel good, do good. If your child is overwhelmed with anger/rage/frustration/etc., they are not going to want to stop yelling until they know you care about their feelings. Connect with your body (hugs, a hand on the shoulder, getting down on their eye level), and with your words (“you sound really frustrated. When your voice is calm, I’d love to talk about it”).
Flora McCormick, LCPC, is a parenting coach who lives in Montana with her family. She is the founder of Sustainable Parenting, a supportive community where parents discover helpful parenting tools and strategies. Click here to join the Sustainable Parenting Facebook Group.
For more on how to connect before you redirect, definitely check out No Drama Discipline, by renowned parenting experts Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. Based on brain science and attachment research, this amazing book has helped countless parents with their screaming kids. ???? Get it on Amazon here.
And for additional positive discipline strategies, I also highly recommend any of the Positive Discipline Series parenting books. Get them on Amazon here.
Thank you so much for reading these expert tips on parenting. If you are looking for more information on meltdowns, our post on how to stop emotional meltdowns offers an in-depth review of strategies to try with your children.
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