It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Tantrums, part three: Screaming

This post has been surprisingly difficult to write, and it’s taken me the better part of three weeks to work out just why. Okay, I confess: I have little experience with tantrums.

Shocked you, haven’t I? The woman works almost exclusively with toddlers, and yet claims to have little experience with the landmark event of toddlerhood. How can this be? Primarily, I believe, this is because after years of experience with tykes this age, I am extremely well-attuned to the indications that we are entering potential tantrum zone, and take evasive action before we reach full-blown tantrum stage. Additionally, it is because in the power struggles that are inevitable with a very young child, I have repeatedly established my spot in the pecking order, and we haved reached an understanding about the mutual expression of respect.

Tantrums are effectively evaded a dozen times a day. By “evaded”, I do not mean appeasing, coaxing, bribing or wheedling a recalcitrant child into compliance. I mean dealing with the situation in such a way as to resolve it effectively, without screaming and aggression. (Your cries of frustration and hair-pulling included.) I realize that I should be writing about these episodes, give you an insider’s view, an annotated case study, as Mim has done so well a couple of times recently. (Although it isn’t titled as such, this post, for example, is a superb example of tantrum evasion.)

In part one of this series, I mused on some of the parental attitudes and principles that increase the likelihood that a child will experience tantrums. In part two, I outlined parental attitudes and principles that will reduce the likelihood of tantrums. And now I’m supposed to get “how-to”, and I was having a terrible time knowing where to start. I have already written about responding to physical aggression , and about the necessity of expecting respect from your child. In the end, I have decided to focus in this post on a single aspect of tantrums, which probably causes more parental stress and humiliation than any other: screaming. And again, Mim has an extremely well-written post describing a masterful example of scream evasion.

She discusses two types of screaming, the justified indignation at being disrespectfully man-handled, and the “fuck you” scream. The latter is my focus.

So here you are, presented with a child who is screaming in sheer raging defiance. You have told them, “No screaming” to no avail. They are mad as hell, and they intend you to suffer for it. What do you do? With very young, pre-verbal, children, you physically remove them from the site, put them some place quiet and safe, and give them time to calm down, alone. It is not punishment to leave them alone: it is respect. “I trust you to calm yourself.” It is also self-respect: “I will not be screamed at.”

During the process of removal to quiet place, you take on the role of “benign robot”. You do not respond with visible anger, feeding their emotional turmoil, nor do you soothe and reassure, rewarding the behaviour. Instead, you are as expressionless as possible. Your words, uttered in a firm and factual tone, are as simple as possible: “No screaming.”

This is doubly difficult if the tantrum is occurring in public. However, be assured that of the other grocery shoppers, many have had their moment in the sun and truly are viewing you with compassion. Of the judgmental ones, well: a) who cares?; and b) they’ll be very happy to see you leave asap. It’s probably the one thing you can do to earn their approval, assuming you need it. So yes, leave that grocery cart 3/4 full if need be, and take your child someplace calm and quiet. Better to resolve this now so you can shop in peace hereafter, than become a prisoner in your own home, afraid to go anywhere through fear of such outbursts.

If the child is verbally competent, in addition to the physical removal, you can use more words. Be aware, however, that too much talk is reinforcing. If you spend long minutes explaining, you are rewarding the behaviour, even if you are obviously angry or upset. Attention is attention, and we are all attention pigs. Just human nature.

However, a firm, “You may be angry, but you may not scream,” is entirely appropriate. Say it once, calmly, slowly and very firmly. Pause for a moment to give the child time to soak your words in and suck it up. Repeat, in just the same manner and tone, perhaps saying the child’s name first. If after two repeats they are still screaming, remove to quiet safe place and walk away. You may choose to add, with the same pause-and-repeat pattern, “When you are quiet, we will talk.”

And then walk away and give them time and space to calm down. This may be the single most difficult thing for most caring parents to do. This perspective will encourage, I hope: It is not your job to calm your child, it is your child’s. No one can control another’s emotions. Your job is to teach your child the appropriate expression of his/her emotions. By walking away, you give your child the opportunity to learn.

When they are quiet, a quick hug and brief praise suffices. There is no need to launch into a “there, you see?”, which is essentially just an “I told you so”, and would annoy any self-respecting human being. Instead, a warm “Feel better now? Good for you. I knew you could do it!” is much more constructive. You have made your point, they have learned a lesson. They are reassured of your continued love and affection, and you can move on to the next thing.

If screaming jags are responded to in this way consistently, they can be eradicated from the child’s behavioural vocabulary in just a few episodes. Bring on that happy day!


September 24, 2005 - Posted by | aggression, parenting, power struggle, tantrums


  1. Mary, is that timestamp for real? I’m a nightowl, but that beats me! 🙂

    Anyway, I remember a time that I took princess number one to the zoo and then to the park next to the zoo. We had the whole day to ourselves as the Queen of All She Surveys was otherwise occupied, so there were no time constraints.

    Our time in the zoo was close to 2 hours and then we spent close to an hour in the park. Lots of fun had by all. Then I felt that it was time to leave, it was getting on for her afternoon nap and I knew that the drive home would be a great time for that nap. (Both princesses nap easily in the car.)

    Well, when I announced the plan to leave, the tantrum started. Man, it was a big one. World class screaming. In the middle of a busy park and play area. Lots of attention coming our way.

    I tried the standard “no screaming” talk, but this was past that, way past that. So, what is a daddy to do? Well, you decide for your self, but I picked her up, put her over my shoulder in the classic bag of potatoes style and walked out of the play area towards my car. Princess number one screamed the entire way and was flailing her arms. She was also trying to kick, but I had a very firm hold or I might have taken a good hit to the face. Oh, and the screaming continued for about half of the journey home as well. Not one of her better days!

    Not fun, but the situation was dealt with swiftly. Needless to say there was a certain amount of debriefing that occured when we got home.

    Princess number two has not managed to generate anything quite that big yet. Hopefully we’ll get her through tantrum season before we get a big one out of her. Fingers crossed.

    Comment by Simon P. Chappell | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  2. “benign robot” is the perfect description. Any parent who can manage that, will soon nip trantrums in the bud, pretty much whatever they do.

    Even Mstr A only had a couple of full blown tantrums at 2years ish, then worked out it didn’t get him anything, and considering his anger-management/behavioural issues, thats not bad going IMHO.

    It’s still one of the hardest things I have to do. LMB is just trying tantrums on for size at the moment, and listening to her scream is agony every time

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  3. Only one thing to add:

    Sometimes a kid tantrums in a store because he/she does not want to be there. I found, in those situations, that explaining, “I know you don’t want to be here, but we must be here so we’re staying,” and then continuing on, through the screaming, was quite effective.

    The Boy only did it once, and only tantrumed for a few minutes. Once he realized that we just were not going to leave, he stopped and I was able to make it a fun trip for him. He never did it again.

    The Girl was a bit more stubborn, but I think she only did it two or three times before she got the point.

    I refused to leave when we HAD to be at the store (out of milk, bread, and any other foodstuffs, for example) or we had an errand we HAD to run.

    But yes, when they WANT to be somewhere and you make them leave…highly effective!

    Comment by misfit | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  4. Thank you for this series. And you were up WAY too late, the time stamp at the bottom tells me!

    Comment by Cheryl | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  5. Simon: (The time stamp was for real, but I am no night owl. Sometimes I just wake up and that’s it for at least a couple of hours. Sometimes I’m up for the day at some ghastly middle of the night hour! A function of getting older, I fear.)

    Different children express themselves differently. Let’s hope princess # two opts for the tempest in a teapot tantrum rather than the full-blown tsunami of her sister’s style!

    Mrs. A: I’m glad you liked the term. It’s original to me, arrived at when my first was a toddler close to twenty years ago, and I’m quite pleased with it, myself. (If anyone else has coined it, I’ve never run across them, at any rate.)

    Sounds to me like you’ve done very well with Mstr A, especially given his particular difficulties. With that experience to bolster you, I’m sure you’ll have the fortitude to deal with LMB, difficult though it may be when in the moment. Short term pain for long term gain.

    misfit: You’re quite right, of course. The problem with writing about a subject such as this is that there are so many possible scenarios. The one you point out is a good one, and the principle here is that you simply cannot afford to let a tantrum work for the child.

    In that situation, another option might be to take the child to the car in the parking lot until s/he’d settled, and then returned to finish the shopping, rather than force others to endure the screaming, and give the child the pleasure of an audience. But however it’s managed, the bottom line for the child must be: you cannot bully me – or anyone else – into giving you your way.

    Cheryl: You’re welcome. I hope it was helpful in some way. I didn’t stay up that late. I stayed up till 11:20 – very late for me! – to drive my son home from a school dance, after which I went happily to bed, but was wide awake again at three, which sometimes happens, and decided to put my over-busy brain to good use. Back to bed at five, up for the day at 7:00. (Yawn…)

    It sure is nice and cozy/quiet/peaceful at three a.m., though. Lots of delicious solitude. Once in a while, it’s not such a bad thing!

    Comment by Mary P. | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  6. I may come across as the hard-hearted Dad here, but I never found it difficult to ignore certain kinds of screams. When my children were still very young, it was obvious to me that some cries are cries of genuine distress; while other cries are just an attempt to coerce someone else (usually mom or dad) into carrying out the child’s will.

    A parent who doesn’t respond empathetically to a cry of distress doesn’t deserve to have children. But the other kind of cry? — the decibel levels provoke an emotional response, for sure, but not feelings of sympathy or guilt. I didn’t find it difficult to withhold whatever the child was after.

    Comment by Q | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  7. Wise man. And that is undoubtedly why your lot, even though most of them are teens now, are generally cheerful and well-behaved.

    There are a few varieties of emotional reactions I’ve seen parents have to the tantrum: feelings of incompetence/helplessness; of distress for the child; panic; guilt; anger, and any combination thereof. They’re very real and sincere, and there’s nothing wrong in feeling them, except that they make it much harder to respond constructively and with a clear head to the tantrum!

    Thankfully I have also generally been quite capable of seeing those cries for what they are: sheer coercive rage. Thus I experience little personal distress other than that caused by my strong aversion to loud noise (!).

    These day I slip into “benign robot” mode without much thought, and take great satisfaction in so doing. Not only does it keep me calm in the face of such high voltage emotion, it’s quite simply, delightfully effective.

    Comment by Mary P. | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  8. Ooooh, I needed this today. Thanks, Mary!

    Comment by SO not Martha | September 24, 2005 | Reply

  9. Ain’t serendipity a wonderful thing??

    Comment by Mary P. | September 25, 2005 | Reply

  10. Mr A happily sleeps through tantrums (and everything else to be honest), and often appears oblivious to the children’s noises! I can happily sit & listen to other peoples children scream the place down, but with my own it’s a real effort of will to ignore it!

    Comment by Mrs.Aginoth | September 25, 2005 | Reply

  11. Your first paragraph made me laugh out loud! (Oh, and I giggled at the word “fuck.” There. I did it. I cursed on your blog!)

    The rest of it was simply brilliant! (And, I’m not saying that because you linked me — but many thanks for that as well! Compliments from such an experienced caretaker mean quite a lot to me.)

    Your point about too much explaining is so very true. It’s a hard balance to walk, but once you find it, it works. Now, if I even sense Tod-lar may scream while we’re at the market, all I have to do is robotically say, “If you scream, we will leave.” That stops him in his tracks.

    Comment by MIM | September 26, 2005 | Reply

  12. Mrs A: Why is that? Hormones? Or that old “flesh of my flesh” thing? Sure can be a pain, though, can’t it?

    mim: There! You’ve allowed me to be crass (ballsy?) by proxy. Such a wicked woman am I! lol

    Comment by Mary P. | September 26, 2005 | Reply

  13. Hi Mary. I know this is an older post, but I was rereading it today, and I have a question for you. We’ve been going through this very issue with our (almost) 5 year old, who’s experiencing a lot of changes.

    My only question is what do you suggest we do when he refuses to stay in a quiet place to calm down? He just follows me out (sometimes I need that quiet place to calm down), and he won’t do it. Short of holding his door shut, do you have any suggestions?

    Comment by Naomi | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  14. I love the idea of being a benign robot. I’m going to have to remember that and work towards being able to be one!

    Comment by Emily | September 28, 2010 | Reply

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