Brenda writes: “I would like to see a solution for screaming. My daughter does it all the time. She is 4 years old.”
Principle: All Behaviour Serves a Purpose
In order to understand how to deal with your daughter’s screaming we need to understand why she does it. How does it serve her? What’s the payoff?
I’ll guess it gets her your attention: “Stop that, your hurting my ears” or, she uses this (mistaken) approach to get her way, “okay, okay, but just five minutes more and then we are really going to bed.”
The Fallacy Of First Impulse
When you don’t know why your child is misbehaving, a good rule of thumb is to think about what your first impulse would be. Would you shout back? Would you like to give in to their demand to stop the screaming? Whatever your first impulse is, don’t do it!
That’s exactly the payoff they are looking for.
The child will eventually discover that their behaviour is no longer serving its purpose and they will abandon it.
Noted Adlerian Dr. Dreikurs writes that the hearing children of deaf parents don’t scream. Why? Because it is ineffective.
Be Consistent (in removing the payoff)
If you are consistent, they will learn this fact faster. If you sometimes react and give attention, or sometimes cave in to their screaming demands you are actually giving what behaviorists call “random reinforcement” and it is the strongest form of reinforcement! Your daughter will REALLY stick with screaming because you are unknowingly teaching her “screaming does work sometimes, so you need to scream persistently!”
Ignore It: Leave the room. If you feel her motivation is attention than this is the best tool of all. Just a grimace or raised eyebrow can be payoff — so casually leaving the room assures there is no audience to give payoff. If you feel the motivation is power, consider using one of the “power tools” I’ve listed below.
Offer Choice: “Can you calm yourself? Or do I need to leave the room?” or “Bedtime is not negotiable, but in the 10 minutes left, would you like to watch a video or colour with me?”
When/Then Statements: [pulling the car over to the side of the road] “When you’re calm (not screaming) then I’ll know you are ready for me to drive again.”
Reflect Feelings: “Would you like me to know that you are feeling [disappointed, hurt, angry, etc.]?” Validate their feelings – but don’t let their use of emotions let them get payoff like staying up later or playing at the park longer.
Long Term Strategy
Children will give up screaming to get attention and their way only if they are shown another, more useful or co-operative way of having their needs met. As parents we need to show them the way. This is where your energies and efforts should be directed.
For every moment you ignore the screaming, you need to pay twice as much attention when your child is not screaming. Catch them being good for a change!
Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of the nation’s leading parenting experts. She’s the author of the bestselling Breaking the Good Mom Myth (Wiley, 2006) and more recently “Honey, I Wrecked The Kids” ( Wiley, 2009). She is host of The Parenting Show on Rogers TV. The media relies on Alyson’s comments and opinions; she has appeared on The Montel Williams Show, The National, BTV, and you can find her interviewed and quoted extensively in countless publications including Today’s Parent, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest and Chatelaine. Visit her online at www.alyson.ca