Thursday, March 18, 2010

Screaming 4-Year-Old?

The Question:

Hi Jane!!

Thank you so much for this great website. I feel like this method is what I have been looking for because constant time-outs are not working anymore. Anyways, my 4 year old daughter is starting to drive me and my husband nuts!!! She cries and screams about EVERYTHING!! If we say"no" about anything she throws a huge tantrum. The hard part is when we are out in public or with family or friends and we tell her "no" she starts screaming and yelling and I just don't know how to handle the situation. We have started losing our patience with her and it has made us angrier and in turn she gets angry back and yells, slams doors, etc. How do I turn this around before it's too late? I don't want her to act like this and I fear that a lot of it is because we have lost patience.

Thanks again for any advice! Really appreciate it!


The Answer:

Dear Kelly,

Sometimes being a mother is so much like being a doctor. You see symptoms and you aren't sure if they're a sign of something serious or whether it's some small minor virus that will pass in a few days. Such is the case with your screaming child. Is she just going through a phase? Is she deep down discouraged? Or is she finding that screaming gets results? Since we can't be sure, let's cover all the bases.

Make sure that you are connecting with her in positivie ways throughout the day. Really pour it on. She's getting big now, so it isn't as natural to pick her up and cuddle her. But she still needs lots of affirmation and physical affection. You didn't mention other children--but four year olds can feel especially "put out to pasture" when the cute baby or two year old is always stealing the show. You can make up for that by developing a new and special friendship. Treat her, in subtle ways, like a peer--sharing little secrets, doing "grown up" things together and then overtly telling her much you enjoy your time with her. Lots of warmth and reassurance about her place with you.

Never reward screaming. Ignore it. Walk away. At the very most, say, "I'm sorry. I can't understand you. When you're ready to talk to me, I'll listen." Even when others are watching, just calmly say this or ignore her all together. Or if she's truly causing a disturbance, take her to the car and read a book in the front seat while she screams. When she finds that she gets absolutely nowhere by screaming--no reward, no attention (negative or positive), no bribe or blackmail or negotiating, no power at all, she will stop. It may take a few days.

The combination of these two stategies should really help. At some quiet, close moment, you can talk to her about screaming. "Remember earlier today, when you didn't get another cookie and you screamed?" Teach her that babies scream because they can't talk. But people just talk. Teach her very specifically what to do when you tell her 'no'. Practice together--each taking the part of parent and child.

Any time that you see her doing it right (handling "no" correctly) stop everything and praise her. "Wow! That was so great! I know that you really wanted that toy but you didn't scream even a little bit!" etc., etc. All the attention and reward shifts to the positive behavior.

When you know what you're going to do, you don't have to get ruffled or emabarrassed. Just carry out your plan and when she calms down, smile, give a hug and say, "I'm glad you're happy now. Remember...we never scream."

Good luck!

With love,



  1. I'm glad you posted this! All along I have been "loving" my daughter through her screaming tantrums! Haha

  2. This is exactly what I ended up doing with my 5-year-old when he was 4, and it worked wonders! As SOON as he would start into a tantrum, I would just tell him "I don't listen to tantrums/can't understand whining kids. When you're ready to calm down, I will be more than happy to listen to what you have to say." And then I would ignore it. We all know it can take a while for a 4-year-old to shut it off, so when we first started out I would acknowledge ANY effort he made to calm down. If he went from screaming to quiet sobbing, I would tell him how proud I was that he was trying, give him a hug, and let him finish calming down before we would talk about the actual problem.

    It's been a year, and we're at a point where all I have to do when he starts to whine is look at him with raised eyebrows and say "What? I couldn't understand you." And instantly a switch will flip and he's back to normal.

    One thing you may want to do is pay attention to her sleep patterns. Ben wasn't sleeping well at night due to night terrors, and it seriously affected how he acted during the day. So we started sneaking in 'rest time' (using the term 'nap' got more tantrums). He was allowed to read in bed, but he had to stay there and stay quiet. Usually, he was asleep in about 10 minutes, and the rest of the day went tons better.

    Good luck! I hope at least something in here helps you out!

  3. So I'm glad you cleared this up, Jane. I used to just ignore tantrums or say I couldn't understand them. But lately I've been trying to let my son just be a 3 year old and pick my battles, just like you've suggested. The other day at the store he was whining for something and I said, "Fine" and gave it to him. He acted surprised and even said, "When I wanted it I said 'I WANT THAT' and you gave it to me. Is that what happened?" It's so funny that he was totally aware of what was happening. And I thought, is this right? Hard to find the balance of limits and letting them be.

  4. I will say that I tell my 2 year old "Nice voice, please," when she is whining or starting to freak out. Usually she sucks it up and sniffles back, "Nice boyce please, mom." Sometimes she even catches herself, and says "I WANT CRACKERS IN A BOWL!!!! ...nice boyce please." Makes me laugh.


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