But when looking at the bigger picture, such behavior suggests something different. Namely, the child does not trust her parent.
What? How can that be when the child is crying because she doesn’t want the parent to leave or because she wants her parent to comfort her when frightened?
Well, if the child trusted the parent, she would know—with 100% certainty—that the parent would never leave her somewhere or have her venture somewhere that wasn’t safe. All the parent would have to say is, “You can trust me”—and the child’s angst would be soothed.
Without that trust, it doesn’t matter how much reassurance the parent offers. Plus, the child learns that by crying or resisting, she not only avoids whatever distorted fear she’s facing, but she also gets a lot of attention. Such concerning behavior then registers in the brain as helpful—even though such response is viewed quite differently by others.
So how do we change all that? We start by believing such kids are yearning to trust their parents 24/7 so that they can feel safe. With that perception in place, we then do the following:
• We use a simple phrase, “You can trust me” for such situations. We say this with a strong presence and conviction as that (initially) will give more assurance than the actual words.
• We establish that no one on this entire planet loves our kids more than us, so we would never leave them with someone we didn’t trust.
• We tell them that we never ask them to do something we didn’t know was safe.
• We believe and tell our child that they’re losing a huge piece of their childhood if they can’t trust when we say something or somewhere is safe. The best part of childhood is that we get to trust others to make those decisions for us.
• We now view comforting our kids when demonstrating separation anxiety or a distorted fear as hurting them—as actually not meeting their emotional need since such response reinforces there really is something to fear, and we (as their parents) can’t be trusted.
• We set up really, really short experiences to allow the brain to register it can trust us. For example, if our child is afraid to be near dogs, we create an opportunity where we stand next to our child while across the street from a dog on a leash—for 60 seconds. That’s it. The next time, we may do this for 90 seconds. From there, we may get closer to the dog—but, again, for only a very short time. In other words, we don’t just “throw our kids into the swimming pool.” We teach them to trust us by showing (not telling) they can.
• We thank our kids for trusting us when they were hesitant, pointing out that such faith also gives them new confidence that makes them feel safe and assured for future situations.
Best of all, when kids trust their parents, the brain registers that the distorted projected fear did not happen—just like the parents said. And that—rather than reassuring speeches, lots of hugging, or finding ways for the child to avoid the distorted fear–is what truly comforts them.
Yes, there’s nothing like a little eavesdropping—especially when we overhear our own name—to make the ears perk up. As parents, we can take advantage of this fact and deliberately create opportunities for our child to eavesdrop.
How does this work? Well, suppose we want to remind our child that he’s not playing video games after dinner if his room isn’t clean. However, if we tell him that directly, he may hear that reminder as nagging or as a confrontational challenge (if he thinks it’s not a fair policy).
Yet, it’s an entirely different ballgame if we casually comment to someone else, “I know that Ryan wants to play video games this evening, and I’m positive that’s only going to happen if his room is clean.”
As the eavesdropper, Ryan still gets the intended message, but now it’s going into the brain in “third” person. He’s merely an outsider hearing a comment that happens to involve him.
And since most eavesdroppers don’t like to announce they’re listening to someone else’s conversation, they probably won’t respond to what they’ve just heard. If so, then we’ve sent the message and avoided a potential squabble. Seems like a pretty easy way to ensure more harmony in the home.
For teens, all we have to do is lower our voice a tad when they’re in the next room, and suddenly they’re tuned in to every word we’re saying. Who knew getting their attention could be that easy?
So eavesdropping probably won’t ever make the list of good manners, but it can expedite communicating a message to our kids without much ado. And that can be really enticing in many households.
1. We own the space in our home.
Our body language says we’re in charge—from the minute anyone enters our castle—and for every moment thereafter. We already know how that feels, and it’s powerful. Think how we’ve wandered into a store or restaurant and just instantly knew who the owner was—without any introduction. That’s the same kind of demeanor and assurance we can adopt in our own home.
2. We believe we need to be in charge.
We understand that if we don’t lead, then someone else will grab that role. Often, that’s a young child who takes over by thwarting everyone else’s sense of calm.
3. We ignore a child’s words and shift our focus to the bigger picture of what he’s needing.
We don’t hear. “I hate you (or whatever other ramped up, angry words are being yelled),” so there’s no temptation to react. Instead, we see an out-of-control child as someone who desperately wants to feel safe—and how can he if he’s learned that creating chaos puts him in charge?
4. We change our mindset so that our body language reflects our thinking.
If we’re feeling helpless (I’ve tried everything—my child just won’t listen), then that’s what our body language says to our child. In contrast, if we believe we’re letting our children down when we don’t take control or that we’re actually hurting them by giving them a false sense of power, our body language automatically shifts to a take-charge demeanor.
5. We use distractions to avoid reverting to prior ways of responding.
If we start to panic (He’s screaming! He’s throwing things! He’s spitting), we don’t go there. Instead, we pick a song to sing to ourselves (or aloud). By the time we’re mooing like cows in Old MacDonald Had a Farm, our body language has already shifted from panic to composed.
6. We acknowledge that we, too, prefer calm, take-charge leaders.
Isn’t that how we want our police officers and fire fighters to respond when called to action? Isn’t that how we want our world leaders to act when making monumental decisions? So why would it be any different for our children?
7. We practice this kind of presence until it feels automatic.
Elizabeth Hasselbeck from “The View” recently shared a story where she put her oldest daughter in charge of the younger siblings while she was in another room. Upon hearing her daughter yelling, she re-entered the room, and asked, “What are you doing? Why are you screaming!?” Her 6-year-old looked up at her and said, “Mommy, that’s what you do when you’re in charge.”
The bottom line: Adopting a calm, take-charge presences makes kids feel secure and protected—and what parents don’t want that for their children?
To clarify: We’re talking about learned screaming. We’re not talking about a child who’s screaming because he’s hurt and in true physical pain.
To end screaming, we need to first acknowledge the following:
If our child already has a big brain map that says SCREAM, we may initially need to do some groundwork to get back on track. Here are some ideas for different situations.
Yes, it’s hard to ignore our child’s screaming when we’re in our local grocery store, since people do stare. So that’s why we drive to a grocery store in another county—where we’ll never see those people again—and let our child wail away. Once in the car, we tell our child that screaming no longer gets our attention or prompts us to exit quickly.
Screaming at Home
We tell our child that he can scream for as long as he likes because we now enjoy screaming. So when he starts to scream, we encourage him to be even louder. We smile and clap our hands. We dance around him. We get the whole family to join in.
Why? Well, the brain becomes totally confused by this completely unexpected response. In fact, some kids just stop screaming—cold—while they’re trying to process it all. But the point is . . . if our child’s brain now perceives screaming as something fun for others (and he’s not part of that), then it no longer retains its old power.
If we know our child is more vulnerable to screaming when he’s tired or over-stimulated, we leave (wherever) before he gets to that point during this “re-educating” stage.
If our child is used to being embraced while screaming, we establish touching him in a way that differs from how we hold him while we’re (legitimately) comforting or being affectionate. For example, if we need to physically move our child while screaming, we now use a cold and impersonal touch.
Yuck and Yay
If we’re used to trying to calm our child down while screaming, we may need to adopt a simple one-word approach (especially if our child is very young). At the very first scream, we merely put our thumb down and say with a lot of presence: Yuck.
But that‘s it. We only get one yuck. Multiple yucks while the child continues to scream only results in giving the same attention as engaging in a conversation—and we don’t want that. Moreover, if our first yuck didn’t get the job done, it’s likely because we lacked a calm, but assertive, demeanor when saying it. So changing our presence—not repeating yuck—moves things forward. In contrast, we also need to reinforce when our child doesn’t scream by immediately saying: Yay!
If we have a screamer, we probably know what sets him off. So, we role play those situations, modeling different responses. For example, we might pretend we’re out shopping and model saying, “Mom, I’m really tired, and there’s so much noise in this mall. Do you think we could leave soon?” (Note that saying, “Use your words!” is not effective in eliminating screaming.)
And just as some folks need to chew gum when they initially give up smoking, some kids may need to adopt a silent scream during this transition period. To do so, they open their mouths as wide as possible and go through all the motions of a huge scream—but they just never use their vocal cords.
To help our child’s brain register that it is capable of being quiet, we may need to start with really short goals. For example, if we want our child to be quiet while we’re talking to someone else, we may set it up so that our child knows he’s going to be quiet for just 20 seconds. With that success, we build (at different times) to 30 seconds, 50 seconds, and so on.
The bottom line on screaming: Since no one in the world embraces this kind of response, there’s no time like the present to eliminate it.
Kids scream because they’ve learned that loud vocal cords give them power. For example, if our child screams because he doesn’t want to (fill in the blank), do we try to reason with him (thereby giving him our attention)? Do we even hold/hug him while we’re trying to calm him down?
If so, our child’s brain is going to register screaming as great, something beneficial. Namely, the brain processes such interactions as follows: I scream—and I get mom or dad to focus on me (which is even better if siblings are competing for their parents’ attention).
And . . . since the average kid can scream for much longer than the average adult can endure, sometimes the child’s brain learns that shrieking, shrilling, and bawling can pay off if the parent ultimately caves. From a child’s point of view, that just has to happen once in a blue moon for it to be enough incentive to revert to screaming all the time.
Often, parents will make excuses as to why a child is screaming: He’s tired. He’s frustrated. He has (fill in the label). He’s non-verbal.
Okay, all of those reasons can be true, but they’re not why the child opts to scream as his choice response. Rather, he screams because he’s experienced that it’s the most powerful weapon in his arsenal—that’s what he’s learned from others’ interaction with him.
To be clear: A diagnosis does not make a child scream. However, believing that a child screams because he has a label will just about guarantee he becomes a screamer.
Also, a child doesn’t scream because he has yet to develop language. When that same child is content (i.e. he’s getting what he wants), he’s not screaming, right? In other words, he’s still non-verbal, yet he’s communicating in a different (positive) nonverbal way.
So we may be encouraging screaming without even realizing it. But that’s actually good news. If we change how we react to screaming, we can also eliminate it.
How to End Screaming: Part 2 appears in tomorrow’s post.