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Why Kids Scream: Part 1

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Our response to screaming dictates whether the behavior is nipped or encouraged.

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.

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