Why Do Kids Scream And What Parents Can Do About It
Ever wondered why kids scream? Let’s look at why children scream and what parents can do about it.
But first, let’s take a moment to imagine how it usually goes.
Imagine grocery shopping with your toddler. You head toward the checkout. Sweaty palms grip the grocery cart. Your heart is racing fast. You know what comes next. Your sweet baby boy turns into a gremlin when you say no to the candy at the checkout.
You feel defeated. Every week it’s the same. You say no and he gets louder – more aggressive. You literally cannot imagine another second of the whining, crying, yelling, and hitting.
All you want to do is buy the groceries and leave. Why can’t it just be simple? As a parent, it’s easy to find yourself doing things you really don’t want to do. Over…and…over again.
You’re just plain exhausted. Nothing seems to work. It’s easier just to throw the candy on the conveyor belt than deal with the fallout.
But this often drags out problem behavior, making it excruciatingly painful for everyone involved.
The saying, “It gets worse before it gets better” definitely applies when you interrupt your kids’ behavior patterns.
When this happens, you’re likely going through an extinction burst. Today, I want to talk about recognizing extinction bursts and ways to effectively handle them for a more peaceful home.
What is an Extinction Burst?
To understand the extinction burst phenomenon, we must first understand behavioral extinction.
Simply put, extinction is when we no longer positively reinforce a particular behavior or habit.
Most kids have a set of behaviors in their toolbox to get what they want. It’s how they learn to navigate the world.
At an early age, they realize behaviors like whining, crying….screaming at the top of their lungs often get them what they want.
Even a firm parent with the best intentions can succumb to giving in when there’s never-ending screaming, crying, and hitting.
But this teaches them they should keep these behaviors in their toolbox for another day. (And believe me…they do!)
Then, when a behavior or habit becomes problematic and you try to course-correct, you get pushback. This pushback comes in the form of seeing more of the behavior you are trying to get rid of.
Kids become more persistent in the old behavior, especially if there is a chance they could get what they want1.
Making behavioral changes isn’t easy for anybody, especially kids.
It’s unfamiliar, it’s not what they want and they often don’t understand why anything needs to change. So they go back to their toolbox and pull out the old tools that worked before, trying to get what they want.
It may start with whining, then crying, then escalate to screaming – even a full-on tantrum with hitting, kicking, and destroying things. The behavior escalates until the child reaches a boiling point – like a volcano.
The volcano lies dormant for a while but when the pressure of all the gases mixed with hot magma builds up, the volcano erupts.
Like the volcano, the frustration from your child not getting their way builds up, and when their behaviors aren’t working, the pressure builds up more and more…..until there is a final explosion.
And then the behavior disappears.
This is the extinction burst.
The good news?
When kids go through extinction bursts, it actually means that what you’re doing is working.
Taking a calm approach and teaching alternative behaviors is the best way to help change unwanted behavior.2 But consistency is key here.
Keep reading to learn more.
Examples of Extinction Bursts
Let’s look at this from a practical perspective. Here are a few scenarios that might sound familiar.
Cutting Out Your Toddler’s Snack
You pick your toddler up from daycare after a long day at work. You come home, get him settled with something to do, and start to make dinner.
Your child, tired and whiny, wants a snack. You know you’re about to eat dinner but he persists, whining and begging for the snack. You reluctantly give him something to eat.
A couple of weeks pass and you’ve found yourself in the pattern of giving him a snack every day while you cook….until you notice that he stops eating dinner.
Worried that your little one is running only on pretzels and fruit snacks after a long day, you want to take away the snack, hoping he’ll be hungry for dinner.
The next day, when you stop giving him the snack, he whines and cries.
You remain firm and remind him dinner is soon, distracting him with some toys. Upset that he isn’t getting what he wants, the behavior escalates.
He throws himself on the floor, screams to the top of his lungs, and throws the nearest toy at you.
No Cell Phones at Dinner
Your teen has a cell phone and has always managed it well.
However, you notice that the phone has been at the dinner table a few times. One night your teen seems preoccupied with the phone during dinner but you let it go, giving her the benefit of the doubt.
It happens again and you worry this is becoming a pattern.
The next night you tell her there’ll be no phones at dinner because it’s family time.
She puts up a fight, yelling that this isn’t fair. You remind her of what the new rule is and ask her to give you the phone.
She gets up, hurls the phone and it bounces off the chair. She yells some more and when you don’t respond she storms upstairs, in a fit of rage, and destroys her room.
What can you do as a parent?
In these scenarios, the easiest thing to do is give your child what they want.
Warning: if you do this, your child will remember exactly what behavior occurred when you gave in.
Let’s say you give in when they hit you. The next time you try to course-correct, they’ll start with hitting you. (Remember, it worked for them before).
How long will this last? Well, every situation is different but a good formula is:
The longer the behavior has lasted + the reliability of getting what they want = the more persistent they will be1.
So a consistent response is key here. Let’s talk about how to handle extinction bursts so that you’ll know exactly what to do when you experience them.
How to Handle Extinction Bursts with Any Age
First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that – in the moment – handling a child screaming is damn hard.
Every day, you’re trying your best to keep calm with all the responsibilities of parenthood. But you’ll get through these explosive outbursts much quicker if you follow these steps.
Own your part in it
Your kid didn’t get this way on his own. I know sometimes it seems like it and it’s easy to be mad at them for their behavior.
If you really think about it, you’ll be able to trace back to all the times you weren’t consistent, helping to reinforce unwanted behaviors.
Often it’s because you were open to negotiation, reinforcing negative behaviors out of convenience, or simply just not consistent. It’s ok. It happens to all of us.
No need to dwell on guilt. But once you notice where you weren’t consistent, you can move forward with implementing a calm response and learn to be more consistent.
Implement response matter-of-factly
No need to get emotional here. If emotional pleas from parents worked, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.
Your response will depend on what the behavior is, the age of your child, what you’ve tried in the past, your family dynamics, etc.
Whether it’s establishing boundaries or coming up with an alternative behavior or ignoring it completely – doing it in a matter-of-fact way will help you stay consistent. Staying matter-of-fact doesn’t allow guilt or shame to interfere with your planned response. It’s parenting without giving a f^ck.
Maintain consistency until you reach YOUR desired outcome
Remember, you’re in charge. Only YOU can decide what you’re willing to tolerate in your household.
Remember extinction bursts come just before the behavior disappears completely1. Remind yourself – you’re almost there!
What you’re doing is actually working. All you need to do is stay the course (which is often easier said than done).
Handling extinction bursts when a child is screaming is not easy. But the more consistent you are, the easier it becomes.
Final Thoughts On What To Do When Your Kid Screams
Sometimes, having support, accountability and an outside perspective helps.
- Struggle with being consistent?
- Feel like you’ve tried everything but still not getting the results you want?
- Need help recognizing how you’re unintentionally reinforcing problem behavior?
Schedule a FREE 20 minute call with me.
What you’ll get in this call:
- A personalized plan with results-based solutions
- Practical ways to understand the motives behind your child’s behavior
- An action plan with strategies that fit your specific situation
If you’re ready to get more CONSISTENT in your parenting and have more HARMONY in your household, let’s chat about how to make that happen!
Click on the button below to schedule a call.