Control issues: A screaming toddler

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

Alice wrote about her 14-month old toddler’s new screaming habit: “I am going crazy! When my 14-month old daughter doesn’t get what she wants, she lets out this high pitched scream until I give in. It seems as though she is gaining a little more control over me and I am are losing control of her. I really do not want this need for control to escalate to other things in the future, which is why I really need to take action now.”

A 14 month old is supposed to be figuring out how to control her environment, including the people in her life. These are crucial skills for children to learn. Parents should not be in complete control of toddlers, and a parent’s control is supposed to get lower and lower as children mature. The whole goal of parenting is to help a child become an independent, competent, and happy adult—not a little robot controlled by the parents. It’s not always easy, but if you wanted easy you should have gotten a goldfish.

There are some things, though, you can and should control: mainly, what YOU do. If you don’t want her to learn that screaming at you is the best way to get you to “hop to it,” you’d better change the way you react to screaming. She’s learning her lessons well, that the best way to get what she wants is to scream her head off.

When she screams, make sure she’s safe first. Then ignore her. Leave the store. Go where you won’t feel pressured or embarrassed. If she’s screaming at you from her crib, leave her there and go somewhere else. Do this without anger or retribution– this isn’t payback, this is the way it is. You scream at me, I do not help you. Period.

Try to stay away from thinking that you can control her, or that there is some magic parenting method that will keep you in control longer. In the long run, that’s not what parenting is supposed to be about.

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29 Comments on “Control issues: A screaming toddler”

  1. Mel R Says:

    Surely the goal of parenting toddlers is to a) help them learn to regulate their emptions, and b) help them learn to distinguish between needs and wants.
    There is a huge difference between a 14 month old crying in her cot, and crying because they want a lolly/toy/icecream.
    You can set boundaries with love, and meet both of the above goals. My children never get something I have already said no to, but if they are upset about the no, then I hold them or stay with them, so they know that I will not abandon them if they feel hurt or upset. I believe this trust will follow through to adolescence and mean that they will always know they can trust me to be there or them – even if we don’t agree!

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  2. alexandra Says:

    What kind of horrible advise is that? How can you leave a 14 month old alone to cry… In a shop and in a crib. I am shocked what kind of nonsense adults apply to raise kids. That poor toddler cannot speak yet to express himself better and is frustrated cos he just cant tell you whats wrong and you leave him alone????? If you ignore him that child will only learn that he is not important to you!!!!!

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  3. Sarah Clement Says:

    Blimey. What horrible ‘advice’. I hope no one actually follows through with this advice and abandons their child at the times when they Need the Most support, recognition of feelings and Love to guide them. I agree, don’t give in or go back on your decisions but don’t leave a sad or angry child alone.

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  4. Lily Says:

    Don’t leave your child to cry. They are crying for a reason. Not just because the WANT a toy, but because they don’t know o to deal with you NO, and that when they need ou to help them through it by bing there.

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  5. Lily Says:

    Sorry for the typos. My keyboard keys are getting stuck.

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  6. You don’t ignore a screaming child who is still learning to regulate her emotions. You model the appropriate behaviour and provide emotional and practical support while helping them to work through their issues. That’s how you teach compassion, respect and support…by PROVIDING IT. This is a horrible article. Just because you respond to your child’s distress, it doesn’t mean you are encouraging it or perpetuating that behaviour.

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  7. Stephanie Says:

    I am in shock about what I just read!!!My daughter is 14 month old and just cannot picture let this little creature with no way of expressing herself just to let her cry for any reason then I really feel sorry for your little girl and her confidence.They need us to their despair,the only way to do it is cry or tantrum…Try to put yourself in your daughter shoe.Just imagine that you are a little 14 month old and feeling frustrating or feeling uncomfortable for any reason and your only way since you cannot talk is crying and if the parent ignore it then next thing is screaming or even tantrum….Just think about it!!!

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  8. Dr. Roy Says:

    An almost 2 year old post has attracted a series of like-minded comments, all in one day! I’m thinking there must be a link to this page, somewhere. Maybe one of you could tell me how you all found my blog, all at once? Curious.

    Anyway: For those of you who found my advice objectionable, please read the question that was asked. It was a real question from a real mom, who stated “When my 14-month old daughter doesn’t get what she wants, she lets out this high pitched scream until I give in.” I’m not addressing little girls who are crying because they’re uncomfortable or in pain or for some other reason. Many of you seem to be objecting to advice I didn’t give about a situation that I’m not even writing about.

    Anyway, thanks for visiting, and please click around to see what other wisdom of mine you might want to disagree with. It’s always enriching to see other points of view.

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  9. Jenni Says:

    yes, but you can stay with the child and help her come to grips with the ‘no’, while still not giving in. Show the child that strong emotions are not something to be feared or ignored. They just are. If my 13 month old wants my phone or something else he can’t have I say no, then when he cries I sit on the floor next to him and say ‘I’m sorry you’re so sad, I can see that you really wanted my phone but it’s not a toy and I don’t want you to play with it’. He usually continues crying for a few minutes then gets up and walks away to play with something else. I haven’t given in to his screams, he didn’t get what he wanted, but he knows I’m still there and that I love him even when he’s having a hard time.

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  10. m Says:

    I think it depends on the situation. my kid used to have uncontrollable tantrums at that age and being with him only made them worse. our approach was to ensure he was safe and then give him time alone till he calmed down. he is now a perfectly well adjusted happy 14 year old. That was for uncontrollable tantrums. for obvious manipulation: namely screaming (not crying) where they are clearly not upset or hurt the only thing that worked was to ignore it.

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  11. Keith Evans Says:

    What is this, Brits bash a doc day? The response given to the original question is entirely appropriate. The mother admitted she would give in to the screaming only reinforcing the behavior. (Or if you prefer, behaviour.) When the child is knowingly screaming strictly to manipulate the mother, break the cycle.

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  12. V Chip Says:

    Apparently in the Self Righteous Parenting class that a bunch of you apparently took together they forgot to include reading comprehension, because he doesn’t mentioning leaving the child in the store, or leaving then when they are crying for pain or other reasons, or not trying other methods first, but specifically for throwing a screaming tantrum when not getting what they want, and a woman who had tried everything and the crying only stopped when she gave in. That’s not being a responsible parent to always give in to a screaming toddler, and at 14 months old reasoning with them falls on deaf ears (I know; I tried reasoning with mine and invariably it came back to the same screaming the next time). Similar to a child who cries at bedtime all the time and a parent always giving in and rocking the 14-month old, if they do not eventually learn to manage the night on their own it will be a lot of sleepless nights for the parents (if they choose to not co-sleep). Changing YOUR reaction to the child’s behavior is a great way to change the child’s behavior and it is the one thing you as parents CAN control.

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  13. Dr. K Says:

    “Mom, I’m sorry you’re so sad, I can see that you really wanted me to move out of the house by age 30 years, but I’m really not sure I can make it on my own. By the way, can I use your phone now?”
    – Jenni’s son in 29 years

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  14. “Maybe one of you could tell me how you all found my blog, all at once? Curious.”

    I followed a link on Facebook from a page I subscribe too, not sure which one because I have a few pages that are similar. Not sure why you care. Why do you care?

    “Anyway: For those of you who found my advice objectionable, please read the question that was asked.”

    Ahem, I did read the question, and the entire article, but thanks for insinuating that I am incapable of comprehending your advice. Interesting that your first assumption when people object to your advice that they did not read it properly. God forbid people might just disagree with you because they believe you’re wrong.

    My issue remains…the advice to ignore the toddler is horrible. Ignore the bad behaviour, yes, but that’s not what you said to this “real mother” (yeah, I didn’t think you were talking about a fake one you know). You told her to ignore her child, to leave the room (if she’s in the crib). What she needs to be doing is taking control over her own behaviour, and stop giving in to her little tyrant in the making. That doesn’t mean she has to ignore the child, it just means she has to be more aware of and in control of her OWN behaviour.

    Yes, it’s easier to pander to lazy undisciplined parents and give them simple blanket rules to follow, especially when you are using a medium as anonymous and indirect as the internet (as opposed to a face to face meeting I mean). When you put something public, you’re inviting public criticism. This is it. Sorry it got your jockstrap in a wad, along with a bunch of your supporters. Funny how an almost two year old post managed to attract them immediately after you had some dissenting commenters.

    “Anyway, thanks for visiting, and please click around to see what other wisdom of mine you might want to disagree with. It’s always enriching to see other points of view.”

    I was actually going to stick around because a lot of your advice was/is good, apart from the bit I objected to, but your condescending treatment of people who disagree leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There’s plenty of avenues for advice that don’t come dripping with condescension and superiority complex so I’ll direct my clients to them, thanks.

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  15. Stephanie Says:

    I could not say better Elvy Golden-Brown!

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  16. Jenni Says:

    Dr K, Not going to happen. I don’t allow my child to walk all over me now – nor would I when he is 30. From teenage years onwards my mum spoke often of ‘when you have your own house’ and ‘when you move out’. I moved out of home at the not very old age of 20 – I craved by own independence. Empathy for another person’s feelings doesn’t mean accepting behaviour you aren’t comfortable with. The way I and many others approach parenting is by seeing our children as people in their own right, who are seeking to get their needs met – as we all are. Their needs do not come above ours, and ours do not come above theirs. As it’s impossible to negotiate with a toddler, when a limit must be set there is nothing wrong with that – but accepting the emotions which the child experiences in response to the limit isn’t giving in. The limit is still there. There is nothing WRONG with crying and tantruming, it is a healthy expression of emotion as long as no-one is being hurt. I suggest you look into Non-Violent Communication, RIE, Aware Parenting, etc. for more information on how this works.

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  17. Dr. Roy Says:

    Again, the question answered was to address specific situation: tantrums that are manipulative and occurring specifically until a toddler gets what they want. Not all tantrums are the same.

    For a more-general discussion of tantrums, this post gives a brief approach that is effective in helping children stop responding to frustration with tantrum behavior. Yes, tantrums are “normal”– they’re an expected developmental step. But I disagree with the assertion that there is nothing wrong with tantrums. They are a maladaptive and unhelpful way for humans to behave, and parents have a responsibility to help their children learn better ways to cope. Many adults, unfortunately, have never learned that lesson.

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  18. Mel R Says:

    Ignoring a child does not teach them how to cope, it teaches them to suppress. As a child becomes verbal, the expectations of them increase, as do their coping skills.
    I don’t see any adults kicking and screaming when they don’t get their own way – I do however see many other maladaptive behaviours displayed by adults, as a result of their inability to process negative emotions. For example, anger – usually as a result of anger being shown to them on a regular basis as a child, or repeated frustration, ie. being left in their room to throw a massive tantrum and break things, and/or being pandered to once they had thrown a tantrum. None of these outcomes are possible when using the methods described by Jenni and Elvy. Your methods, Dr. Roy, can directly result in many maladaptive behaviours, or simply repression along with substance/alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression.

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  19. Mel R Says:

    That is a good article that you linked to. I believe Phase 4 should include more lessons and talking with the child though. How did they feel, other ways the problem could have been solved.

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  20. Who is the parent? Children need to learn limits and appropriate behavior. If your child is clean, safe, well, feed then the screaming is inappropriate and should not be rewarded. Sit the kid down in a safe place where you can keep an eye on him/her and walk away. If not, you are rewarding your child for bad behavior by giving him attention.

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  21. Mel R Says:

    Ah yes, the conditioning theory. Works fantastically for dogs. Humans are capable of a little more intellect though.
    Why is an upset child a ‘bad behaviour’? An upset child is out of control. They may need space, they may need a hug. As long as you are not sending the message that ‘if you chuck a tantrum you will get whatever you want’ how are they being rewarded? If all they wanted was a toy, and they are not given the toy, but are helped to calm down afterwards – I can’t see how that is a reward.

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  22. Dr. Roy Says:

    Operant conditioning is a huge influence on how people behave– and not just babies. There are reams of literature on this, and trillions of industry dollars are spent to exploit it (that would be “Advertizing.”) To deny that conditioning influences our behavior is just…. odd.

    An “upset child” isn’t “bad behavior.” A temper tantrum is maladaptive and is bad behavior. As a parent I try to stop that behavior in my own kids, and I teach parents how to stop that behavior in their kids. I suppose some may object to the “bad” as a value judgment; I believe to not judge it so is silly.

    It’s not the message you think you are sending, it is the message that the screaming toddler is receiving. Rewarding tantrums by giving attention (attention is the reward) during the tantrum will reinforce the behavior, and will increase its frequency. That’s not good for the child or the parent.

    Helping the child calm down afterwards is different, and is a helpful thing for parents to do, as discussed in the link I provided above. “Afterwards” — the word used in the post above — is different from during.

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  23. Dr. Roy Says:

    Here’s a just-published study of “crying it out” (actually, gradual extinction) as a sleep training technique. In 5 years of followup, babies whose parents used this method had no more psychological or sleep issues than babies who were sleep trained with more “gentle” methods:

    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/09/04/peds.2011-3467

    I’ll address this study more-thoroughly shortly. Note it has nothing to do with tantrums, so it’s only tangentially relevant to this thread. Still, it’s just a little nugget of further reassurance that ordinary crying isn’t damaging to children.

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  24. Mel R Says:

    Dr. Roy I did not deny that operant conditioning influences behaviour, what I do dispute is the positive outcomes as a result of using operant conditioning on a child. Yes, you may have improved behaviour in the short term, but there is more to life than short term rewards.
    I also believe that ordinary crying is not damaging to children. Giving children the message that their anger or sadness will result in a removal of approval or love *is* damaging.
    Both of my children very rarely have had true temper tantrums. And when they have, there is often another factor involved – tiredness or hunger. A temper tantrum may be ‘a maladaptive behaviour’, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be treated with respect for a little person who has not yet learnt a better way to respond to disappointment.
    The very term ‘gradual extinction’ fails to acknowledge the reason for crying. There are a vast number of studies which dispute the psychological saety of leaving babies in a state of distress. Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. New York: Berkeley Publishing (Penguin).
    Blunt Bugental, D. et al. (2003). The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment. Hormones and Behaviour, January, 237-244.
    Bremmer, J.D. et al. (1998). The effects of stress on memory and the hippocampus throughout the life cycle: Implications for childhood development and aging. Developmental Psychology, 10, 871-885.
    Dawson, G., et al. (2000). The role of early experience in shaping behavioral and brain development and its implications for social policy. Development and Psychopathology, 12(4), 695-712.
    Catharine R. Gale, PhD, Finbar J. O’Callaghan, PhD, Maria Bredow, MBChB, Christopher N. Martyn, DPhil and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children Study Team (October 4, 2006). “The Influence of Head Growth in Fetal Life, Infancy, and Childhood on Intelligence at the Ages of 4 and 8 Years”. PEDIATRICS Vol. 118 No. 4 October 2006, pp. 1486-1492. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/short/118/4/1486.
    Heim, C. et al. (1997). Persistent changes in corticotrophin-releasing factor systems due to early life stress: Relationship to the pathophysiology of major depression ad post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 185-192.
    Henry, J.P., & Wang, S. (1998). Effects of early stress on adult affiliative behavior, Psychoneuroendocrinology 23( 8), 863-875

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  25. Dr. Roy Says:

    Thanks Mel for refs. We’ve blossomed into a larger discussion about the viewpoint that’s collectively referred to “attachment parenting”, which has both its devotees and detractors. I may try to address that in a new post.

    In the meantime, for what it’s worth, let me quote Dr Sears (whom many consider the spokesperson for attachment parenting) on the specific issue of temper tantrums. This is from http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/discipline-behavior/bothersome-behaviors/temper-tantrums/taming-toddler-tantrums

    “If you feel that your child is using tantrums as a tool to get his own way, give him verbal cues and use body language that says you don’t do tantrums. Be aware that toddlers know how to push their parents’ buttons. If you are a volatile person, it’ll be easy for your child to trigger an explosion from you, ending in a screaming match with no winners. You send a clear message when you ignore his fits or walk away. This teaches him that tantrums are not acceptable. This is part of toddler discipline.”

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  26. Jenni Says:

    Personally, I’d disagree with Sears on that one…

    The thing for me is, a parents attention can only be a reward when the child is getting insufficient attention (and/or connection) to start with. Emotional connection with the parent is a legitimate NEED for a child, and they’re only going to chuck temper tantrums to get it if they can’t get it any other way. I have a grown niece who was parented with popular parenting methods, similar to what has been described above. She is NOT fine. I don’t blame my sister directly for how she’s turned out, as she was doing everything ‘right’, but this sort of approach can be very damaging to some types of people (I say people, because children are people. Sometimes other people seem to forget this). Like adults, children behave in a way which seeks to meet their needs. (You should check out NVC http://www.cnvc.org/ )

    So when you ignore your child who is having a tantrum over something stupid because she needs to connect with you, not only are you making her feel that big emotions are something to be feared and ignored, but also missing a signal that perhaps you’ve been really busy lately, and haven’t had much time for them, and maybe you just need to sit down with your child and show them that you do see them and they are important to you.

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  27. Mel R Says:

    If you do a post on that study, Dr. Roy, I wouldbe very interested to read how you can give the study any weight, given its serious shortcomings, ie. the fact that 31% of the participants dropped out of the study – which in itself nullifies any results; and that the ‘control’ group sat by the bed, that there was no specifics as to the ibstructions given to the control or intervention groups and one very disturbing quote from the study – after 11 MONTHS of nightly crying a child started sleeping through. A seriously flawed study.

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  28. Dr. Roy Says:

    After reviewing the study, I withdraw my comment from 9/11– the study I referenced doesn’t rigorously support crying it out. My comment was based on media reports, and I should have known better than trust the media to report on studies correctly. I’ve got a full post coming up on this study shortly.

    Mel R– I don’t see the comment about the 11 months of nightly crying you mentioned. Could you tell me where that appears in the manuscript?

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