Q: When he doesn't get his way, my 18-month-old will scream at the top of his lungs. This is incredibly embarrassing when we are out in public and just irritating when we are at home. What's the best way to get him to calm down?
A: One of the biggest challenges of parenting is separating ourselves from our children’s behavior. Unfortunately, when we have a strong emotional reaction to our child’s behavior, we tend to react in ways that make the behavior escalate.
Step 1 -- The rule of thumb is: When your child is losing it, do everything you can to stay calm. While this is no small task, it is key to a successful outcome.
Step 2 -- Recognize his feelings. (This is quite different from saying the behavior is okay.) Recognizing his feelings means acknowledging what your child is feeling without judgment: “You are really frustrated!” Feelings themselves are not right or wrong. It is how feelings get expressed that can be problematic (i.e., hitting when angry vs. using words.)
Until their feelings are acknowledged, most children will continue to act out to show you just how mad they are. Also, helping children identify their feelings and teaching them the words to describe their feelings is critical for promoting self-control and coping skills.
Step 3 -- Set the limit matter-of-factly, with as little emotion as possible: “You may not hit your baby brother.” When possible, you can offer an alternative, more acceptable behavior instead: “If you are really angry, you can hit the couch cushions or play your drum as loud as you want.”
How do you implement this approach?
Implementing this strategy would look something like this. Your son starts screaming when it’s time to leave the playground. You say, with compassion: “I know, you are soooo mad that we have to leave the playground! You really want to keep playing.” As he continues to scream, you very calmly continue taking steps to depart while remaining cool.
If he refuses to get in the stroller or car seat, pick him up and place him in, ideally without anger or emotion. There is no reasoning with a child when they are out of control. The more matter-of-fact you can be (even as you use all your strength to click him in!), the better.
Completely ignore his screaming so that he gets no attention for it. Instead, keep talking to him in a calm voice about how mad you can see he is; that it is hard to stop doing something he likes so much; that you’ll come back again soon, etc. While he may not understand all your words, talking in a compassionate, soothing voice can be calming to him; and, just as important, it is a way to soothe yourself during this stressful time.
Finally, don’t fear these episodes. See them as opportunities to help your child develop the ability to cope with frustration. Your response to him can make a big difference in how he learns to manage his strong feelings in acceptable ways.