Q: When he doesn’t get his way, my 19-month-old will scream at the top of his lungs, which is really embarrassing when we are out in public. What’s the best way to get him to calm down?
A: You’re not alone. One of the biggest challenges of parenting is separating ourselves from our kids’ behavior. Unfortunately, these strong emotional reactions tend to encourage the very behavior we are trying to stop. For example, when parents show how badly they want their child to use the potty, it often increases the child’s resistance to using it.
The rule of thumb when a child is “losing it” is to stay calm. Let’s face it—this is no small task, but it’s key to a successful outcome. Next, validate your child’s feelings without passing judgment. For example, avoid saying things like, “That is very naughty behavior” and instead go with something like: You are really angry that Daddy said no to lunch in the food court. Feelings are not the problem. It is how the feelings get expressed that can be problematic, such as hitting when angry. Until a child’s feelings are acknowledged, most children will intensify their response and act out even more (e.g., screaming) to show you just how mad they are.
So start with validation. If your son starts screaming when it’s time to leave the playground, let him know that you understand that he wants to keep playing and that he’s really mad that he has to leave the playground. Putting his feelings into words shows you understand. This often has a very soothing effect and also helps him ultimately learn self-control.
If he continues to protest, 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, without anger. There is no reasoning with a child who is out of control. The more calm and matter-of-fact you can be (even as you use all your strength to belt him in!), the better.
Completely ignore his screaming so there is no motivation for him to keep the tantrum going. Instead, talk to him in a calm voice about why he is mad and explain that he’ll visit the playground again soon. Talk about the fun things the two of you will do when you get home. 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. While these episodes aren’t fun, they are great opportunities to help your child learn to cope with frustration and develop self-control—two skills he’ll use for the rest of his life.