Recently a parent sought advice regarding her 21 month old. It seems that whenever they go out to a restaurant or a store, he lets out a high-pitched scream over and over. He’s not crying or visibly upset and it doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything scary, but it’s loud and draws unwanted attention. Mom and Dad wonder what they can do to diminish this behavior in public.
Several approaches can work to greater or lesser degrees to diminish unwanted, annoying toddler behaviors like screaming, but figuring out what the child is gaining from the noisy outburst can help guide a parent to choose one over another. Look closely at your response to the behavior thus far. Your child is almost certainly getting some response out of you and that is why the behavior is persisting.
If your response is to leave the restaurant or store quickly to avoid the public struggle with your child, he has learned that if he doesn’t want to be at a restaurant or store, screaming is a strategy that will shorten the trip. In this case, you can do one of two things: get a sitter and leave your child at home so you can go about your business unhampered by a screaming child or ignore his screaming entirely. Act nonplussed and don’t rush. Pay him attention when he starts using his regular voice but as soon as he starts screaming look away and don’t interact. You will see a big increase in the behavior at first if you bring him along, but ignore him as he tries harder to get your attention. Remaining unemotional and disengaged is essential for this strategy to work.
My vote: leave him home when you can and know that as he gets older this will likely diminish on its own. When you absolutely need him to come along, employ the ignore-him plan.
If your response is to try and convince him to vocalize differently by saying things like “Use your indoor voice” or “No one wants to hear your screams,” chances are you won’t get very far with a child under 2. If he seems to increase the behavior when you say these things, he is essentially asking for your attention. In this case, when you put him in the cart at the store or the high chair at a restaurant, talk to him incessantly. Give him so much attention by talking about what you see around you and what you are doing that he doesn’t need to scream to get your attention.
If your response has been to get angry with her (this usually happens after trying to coax her to talk more quietly and failing), this visible emotional response may be just what the child is looking for. Even though the response is negative, the control has shifted and she is king of the hill. In this case, moderate your emotions and remain as calm as possible. Get the business at hand done, ignore your child’s screams and head home.
The truth is that you can only do so much to modify these public displays for attention and if you find that you dread going out with your toddler or get tense or anxious about it, it’s time to reorganize your time so your toddler spends less time shopping and at restaurants and more time playing at home. You can still have lunch with a friend or shop, just get a sitter or make plans to do these things when your spouse is around instead.