Thoughts: This was in my first post, but I'm re-posting this question and answer because I didn't put a good title on the post, and it doesn't do anyone any good if they can't scroll down the post topics and see what I'm writing about! Plus, this was a heartbreaker question - one that really moved me.
Q: “I need some serious help. My son and his three children live with me (3, 5, and 7 years old) along with my daughter who is 11. My son has just gotten custody and the adjustment has been so hard. It’s to the point where I don’t want to be in my own home. The 3-year-old screams daily when he doesn’t get what he wants. He’ll keep at it for 20-45 minutes and I can’t take it anymore! It’s so loud that you can hear him outside of the house and I have to just leave. He doesn’t sleep either. He’ll calm down while his dad reads him books before bed, but he’ll start the screaming again just as soon as the light goes off and it’s time to sleep. Please help!”
A: I'm SO sorry to hear about your difficulties. Off the top of my head, here are a few thoughts:
Extreme behaviors like screaming can happen for a few reasons:
1. Stress - divorce, move, etc.
2. Disorders (autism, etc.) or illness (pain)
3. Past screaming has been consistently reinforced (screaming is habitual to get what he wants)
If this behavior is new, I would think about #1. However, if it is par for this child, I would consider #3. But no matter which one it is, you still need to start by creating an environment of trust, security, and control. Here's how to begin:
1. He needs a STRICT, REGIMENTED ROUTINE. No way around this one. When toddlers have a basic idea of what comes "next" during the day, they are secure. With a routine, they know what is expected and how to behave.
2. Proper rest. If he's tired all the time, you will never get anywhere. Tying this in with a routine, that means a strict nap or rest time every day. Same time, same routine.
3. Feed him healthy foods. In my humble opinion, sugar and processed foods are just behavior problems waiting to happen. Check labels and make sure he’s not eating crap.
4. NO reinforcement for the screaming. Period. If he starts up when others are around, put him in time out and let him finish. Do not get mad, do not yell at him to stop. Just put him away from everyone else and let him howl. Say (only once), "When you have a quiet voice, you can get up." If it's at night, make him stay put in bed, and you wait out the howling. If he gets up, put him back. The only reason he's doing this is because it has always worked. He gets his way when he screams, so he'll keep it up until you're on the porch in tears and can't take it anymore. Do not give in. HOWEVER - he MUST feel safe and secure in his love from caregivers. During the day, make sure he gets positive reinforcement for good behavior, and hugs and kisses when appropriate. (And keep an eye out to make sure he doesn't scream so much that he throws up.) This whole waiting-out-the-screaming business simply stinks - and can drag out forever. I've got a section of my book dedicated to bedtime issues, but I don't lie about the effort and anguish.
5. ALL caregivers must be on board with the same method, or it simply will not work. If he's getting conflicting messages from you, dad, mom, teachers...it is too confusing. He needs CONSISTENT structure, a routine, and all caregivers have to STOP reinforcing the screaming.
There are no quick fixes for this. He has clearly learned what works. You have to teach him "no, this doesn't work anymore". And if daddy isn't on board, you are out of luck. Daddy must know how to stop the reinforcing as well.
There are so many factors in child behavior that it is simply impossible to give you a NOW answer - especially in an email. My book does give many, many strategies to create this environment of trust, security, and control, and it's a great starting place. However, I can't do this for you - caregivers are the ones who must assess the reason for the behavior, and change their reactions to stop the negative nonsense. My book can give you the tools to start with, but it all depends on caregivers. It’s up to you to figure out WHY he’s screaming and give him the opposite of the demand. I know that's a crappy answer, but I'm never one to sugar-coat! And believe me, I still feel your pain!
Also remember that kids easily pick up on your vibes...if you are constantly irritated, he'll know - and it will make him feel insecure...which means out of control...and then everyone is spinning again.
I hope this helps a bit. I'm sorry there are no quick fixes, but toddler behavior is complex - there are so many emotions and external factors. You have to look at the entire picture.
I do not normally have time to give such lengthy emails, but I wanted to give you some feedback so you can get a head start.
Best of luck! Hang in there...the other kids need you, too.
Michelle Smith, Life with Toddlers