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How to Deal with Toddler Screaming and Crying

How to Deal with Toddler Screaming and Crying

I love being a mother. But it can get downright tough. I always looked at toddlers that were having huge major meltdowns and thought to myself, ‘man I hope that my kid isn’t like that’. Well now I have one who is exactly like that. Of course I love him to pieces but man can he scream!

And he meltsdown at just about anything. He cries if his granola bar breaks in half. He screams if he drops his fork and I replace it with an identical one. If he is wearing a shirt for bedtime and doesn’t want to take it off when I change him in the morning, we experience a huge melt down, etc.

Usually by the time breakfast is over he’s already cried, shrieked, screamed, and melted down over a handful of times because of things I feel are fairly meaningless. After a few months of this, I read up on why these toddlers cry so much. I pretty much read what I knew in the first place…

I know he has the best of intentions. I know that he’s a smart boy just frustrated with his limited vocabulary and difficulty expressing himself. He has big emotions in a small body and it’s difficult for him to handle them. He’s just trying to figure everything out. And just when he thinks he has it figured out, his fork drops, or he has to change his favorite shirt. Eighteen months to about three and a half is a tough time for our little ones. Some toddlers have much more difficulty with it than others (our son is one of them). I guess that’s why they call it the ‘terrible two’s’.

When we see the frustration starting to build, we do the following:

  • I tell Denali (our 2 1/2 year old) to ‘use his words’. I even sing the song from Daniel Tiger, “Use your words, use your words”. On occasion he will use them and we avert a melt down.
  • We give him 2-3 choices between clothes and colors, fork or spoon, and other items. This works about 40% of the time.
  • We make something he needs to do sound and seem super fun like putting on shoes, or his jacket. For example we will say, “Wow look at those awesome, amazing Lighting McQueen shoes! Mom has her shoes, dad has his shoes, Denali do you want to put on your awesome light up shoes on and be like mom and dad?” Yes it’s a mouthful, but if we act excited and use good tones he will quite often comply.
  • We try to let the non-essentials slide. For example, if he wants strawberries instead of blueberries, we give him the strawberries. If he wants to play with a non-toy that won’t hurt him or break easily, we let him. I once heard a quote that says, “Whenever possible, say yes; they are only kids once!”—Majorie Pay Hinckley. Having this attitude and doing my best to say yes instead of no all of the time helps too.
  • We are firm on nap time. Often he becomes too tired to handle his emotions and needs to recharge. Naptimes are life savers, if refused, he stays in his room for quiet time for at least an hour or two and then goes to bed a little earlier than normal.
  • We set up plenty of play dates with other kids. Denali is a strong-willed social boy who loves to be around others. Play dates (although he will have some melt-downs or cry-outs) usually help him burn off energy, learn, socialize, and feel special.
  • We have him go to timeout for when he misbehaves. He has to stand with his head towards the wall for about a minute or two. Timeout is especially effective for him!
  • We teach him. We ask him to look us in the eyes, (we kneel down so we are at his level) and teach him that what he is doing or perceiving may not be the most correct. For example, we tell him he needs to share his crayons with his friend he is coloring with. Or we explain that the granola bar is okay even if it is broken, etc. This is suggested by many professionals but I can say that with our son, honestly, it rarely works. Maybe one day it will, I keep trying it hoping it will.
  • We limit TV time. I’ve noticed if we limit the time he spends watching TV he is better behaved.
  • We tell him what is happening during the day. For example, “We will eat breakfast, then brush teeth, and after that we will go to the grocery store.” This helps him to know what is happening and feel more in control. I’ve noticed a big difference on days when I do and do not do this.
  • We make sure to have one-on-one time and family time (without electronics). I take him on mommy-son outings often. Dad takes him out too. I read to him alone, have tickle wars, jump on our in-ground trampoline together, etc. By doing this we are trying to show and remind him (that despite growing older and having a little sister), we will always love him. One-on-one time really helps to reduce his melt downs.

YET, even doing our best and implementing all of these tactics often, we still experience multiple crying, screaming, and whining episodes each and every day.

I asked my sister what she does because her son easily wins the award for crying episodes (and my sister easily gets the patience award for dealing with the crying these past few years). She told me what she found to really help combat the meltdowns was making a designated ‘crying chair’. When their son was crying (and wasn’t in trouble) he was sent to sit on the crying chair. As soon as he was done crying he was allowed to get off. After a day or so he realized what was going on.  He only went and sat on the crying stair when he was crying. He wasn’t being punished, he was simply being asked to sit and calm down. It’s really helped him to learn to calm down quickly and understand that having a meltdown isn’t the proper way to handle his emotions.

So we began doing this with our 2 year old Denali. He has a crying step and it is the top step in our garage or the bottom step on our back patio (the reason why it is outside is so he can calm down without waking up our baby—which has happened too many times to count). In the winter we will change the location.

So, I take him or send him (he can open the door) out to the garage and he sits on the top step. There he can scream and cry all he wants without waking up our baby, and because the door muffles the noise I don’t get overly upset about the crying either. I stay near the door and as soon as he is done crying he is allowed in. He can also choose to let himself in. He stands up and opens the kitchen door or back door and comes inside, but only after he is finished crying (and he obeys that rule). After implementing this for the last few months, I can without hesitation say it has been a sanity-saver!

This is not a punishment. We do not send him onto the crying stair for hitting, spitting, biting, etc. He goes to timeout for those grievances. He only goes to the crying stair when he is crying over something that hasn’t broken a rule.

The crying stair is working so well that he already starts to calm himself down on his way to it. It’s pretty amazing how much better he is getting at calming himself down and self-soothing. It’s not perfect but we are having to use it less than when we started.

We are so happy my sister gave us this advice. Not every child will need a crying stair/chair. But if you have one who, despite your best efforts and implementing many of the tips I shared above, cries or screams incessantly, it may work for you as well as it does for us!

UPDATE- Our son has made a ton of progress over the past year and we have had to use the crying stair less and less. Often, when he is having a tantrum all I have to say is ‘do you need to go to the crying stair?’ and he will calm himself down. I know that some of improvement is also due to him growing up. When he turned three is it like a light went off and despite there still being a tantrum here and there, they are occurring less often and the crying stair (mentioning it or sending him to it) stops them quickly.

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25 Responses to How to Deal with Toddler Screaming and Crying

  1. I think we are going to have to try this! Our son has been super whiny and cries a lot recently, and it’s driving us insane. Thank you so much for this post! I think it may be the solution to our problem!

  2. Brit says:

    Our family has used a “cry pillow” for this exact same purpose. Like Anita, we do not use it the same way as a time out. In our home, time outs are started and finished at the parents discretion (the kid has no say in when they are done). With the cry pillow, the kid has more responsibility to start understanding/controlling his own emotions. He is more than welcome to join the world at any time he chooses, but only if he is truly calm!

    I like the use of a pillow because it makes it a comforting place to be, and separates it from the time out chair. Some days are just really tough for these little guys, for many reasons, and it can be great for them to have a cozy spot where they can just be dysfunctional for a while, without being able to control the whole house with their meltdowns!

  3. Hayley says:

    Hi, I really love these ideas!! I have a 17 month old, he isn’t too bad with tantrums yet (and hopefully stays that way) but I’m definitely going to save this just incase!! I was just wondering, if anyone has any tips for this, when we tell our son no or give him into trouble, he will sometimes try to poke us in the eye or pinch us. we will take his hand and give it a little pat and say no, we don’t poke people in the eye, etc. does anyone have any tips for stopping this behavior? Thanks 🙂

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Anyone is welcome to reply. I would say that if the hand pat is not deterring him from poking or pinching, you need to try something else that makes him regret it and in the future avoid it. Be consistent. Every single time he pokes or pinches he gets the same dreaded consequence. After a week or so of this it is likely he will no longer persist.

  4. Barbara says:

    I really don’t think spanking a child for hitting is a good message. Trying to teach a child NOT to do something and then doing that very thing to him is a confused message. Timeout spot/chair/bench I think is the best choice and then when his timeout is over, a quick loving reminder that hitting only hurts people and can’t be accepted. No long winded explanations, a gentle hug and a whispered, ‘hitting hurts, that’s why we need you to stop doing it. You can always tell me if you are upset about something.’ way better than hitting to stop him from hitting.

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Every child is very different. Our daughter we will most likely never have to be spanked. Our son on the other hand, needed it. We’ve found it is the only thing to have ‘gotten through’ and the only way to effectively teach him consequences for his willful neglect of listening and obeying. We will try a cold shower when spanking stops being effective. As mentioned in the article we only had to spank him for a week or so until the threat became enough to get him to do what we ask. We rarely spank now. The book I link to explains spanking very effectively and has been well received for over a decade now. It has sold millions and millions of copies. The expert that wrote it explains why short term pain equals a long term ability to discipline more effectively. The biggest indicator that spanking works with our son is that despite trying everything else for months and months, as soon as we started spanking his behavior improved 90%!!! I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Thank you for sharing yours.

  5. Diana says:

    I have been going through this with my son (now 3) for the past year. I had to figure out some of this stuff the hard way on my own but it’s good to see it explained and also get some new ideas. And, it also helps knowing that we’re not the only ones. I will change the crying area and timeout area, I hadn’t thought of that. I resorted straight to spanking but it only left us more frustrated. Since we started using the other ideas, his attitude improved but at times spanking is still necessary. Thank you for your article

  6. Valerie Lynn says:

    Preventing a melt down is the most important thing a parent can do…

    But please…you are the parent…if you want your child to put their shoes on ask them nicely once…if they do not listen…tell them and make them..put them on your lap or lay them on the floor and do it…by making it “fun” or dragging it out you are giving power to them…they love attention, they love fun..they love to laugh and giggle and make things difficult to get a reaction from you…do not give them the power – say what you mean, mean what you say!

    Choice…all toddlers love choices but keep it simple give them option of an apple sauce or a mixed fruit cup…blue shirt or green one…pink plate or purple one…when you have the time and ability too…independence is wonderful..however do not be held hostage when your child wants what you are not offering either (again you are the parent)

    Sleep – do not run errands or make play dates during the times your child would sleep

    Food – always keep meals on time and snacks on hand – do not make lunch dates for lunch time..make them 30 minutes earlier so ou are served lunch at lunch time not after your childs normal meal time

    Quiet time – errands can be noisy and overwhelming..if your child does not like the noise…plan errands when they do nto have to be with you, leave them with dad 1 evening a week, or saturday morning or arrange for Grandma to visit, a friend etc.

    Include them in what you are doing…our daughter has a notebook and pen (in fact i have 4 just n case) in the car..she takes ‘notes’ and makes lists while we shop and we give her the receipts from our shopping (for example)

    Lastly…and most importantly although you need to accept that tantrums happen (big emotions little kid and not enough words) that does not mean you have to stand there and take it like a chump…pick your child up and move to a quiet location, your car, a quiet room in your house (aka their room on their bed) and ride it out…be calm but not cuddling…be understanding without coddling…be there for when they are done and ready to ‘talk and listen’ to you – remind them of the words they need to use instead of crying/kicking afterwards (they do not hear you whne they are mid fit) and lastly when they are done and have pulled themselves together you can go back and try your activity or situation again

    best of luck!!

  7. Wow Anita, thanks for sharing this tip! My daughter barely made a year old and I’m constantly looking out for the terrible twos to make its appearance. I’m gonna give the crying stair a try once she starts having meltdowns. Sounds like it’s worth a try! Thank you!

    • Anita Fowler says:

      You’re welcome and yes it works wonders I wish you the best through the ‘terrible twos” my son hit them hard! He is now just pulling out of them (he turned three a few weeks ago). He really is so much better and just me asking, “Do you need to go to the crying stair?” helps him calm down and say no. We rarely use it because he doesn’t want to go to it and will stop crying on his own now 90% of the time. It has been awesome!

  8. Laura says:

    I do this for my 8 year old! She has SPD and emotional immaturity, and i give her the space to cry and get it all out, but she has to go to her room to do it. When she is calm, she is welcome to rejoin us and we can talk about what upset her and how to handle it better next time.

  9. Mama Carmody says:

    This is wonderful advice. My daughters are grown and now we are helping with our grandchildren. Your advice is spot-on. I used just about every one of your techniques. We actually used the same step for time outs and for crying fits. Actually our time outs were usually limited to whenever they stopped crying and could come apologize. We also believed in spanking for those absolutely defiant times. James Dobson gives some wonderful advice.

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Thank you so much Mama Carmody. That is such a nice comment. I appreciate it. Sounds like you were a great parent and now an amazing grandparent. It really helps us as parents when the grandparents are firm and discipline too. If not, you have to retrain and remind them after they visit grandma and grandpa. My parents keep our kids in line and it is really nice.

  10. Katie c says:

    lovely article! One other trick is to give expectations for the events happening throughout The day so he maintains a since of control and confidence. warnings like “first we are eating breakfast then brushing are teeth then going to the park” may help too!

    • Anita Fowler says:

      Katie- That is such a good tip. I can’t believe I forgot to add it. When I do that, I do notice he is better prepared and has fewer breakdowns. I’ll add that to the article.

  11. A.S. says:

    Thankyou!!! This is a really helpful article that uses boundaries and firm guidelines AND just common sense (less tv time, pre-information of the daily routine, one-on-one time). I think most of us understand why our toddlers are throwing tantrums but there seems to be a lot more advice out there on why rather than useful advice on how to lovingly and firmly combat it – our little guy has just hit 18 months old and oh boy are we in for some interesting days! (My Mum seems to recall similar with me as a toddler..haha). It’s nice to know we’re all in this together!
    Will definitely be trying the ‘cry pillow’ – thank you so much!!!

  12. Chelsea says:

    Great idea! I like this to teach that we are allowed to be upset, but then he must learn to calm himself down! It’s nous parents fixing the problem, its the kid learning to calm himself from whatever had upset him! Thanks for the read, very insightful!

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