Why Kids Scream and What Parents Can Do About It

It can seem like children scream at the most inopportune times, but there is usually a good reason why your child is screaming.

Why Do Kids Scream? Kids scream to express emotion and communicate. When children scream they are using a tool to express themselves as they process what is happening in the world around them. Children most often scream when they have not yet learned how to express their emotions in the moment verbally.

Children who scream aren’t doing anything outside of the norm. They are most likely experiencing intense emotion and don’t quite know how to process it. Over time they will learn the skills to express themselves properly. In the meantime, parents who learn about why their child is screaming will understand the underlying cause and be better prepared to help them through it.

The Science of Screaming

Parents are bound to experience their kids screaming and yelling. That’s because children have evolved to use screaming as a tool to communicate the emotions they are experiencing. While children are young they are discovering their voice and exploring how to use it. As they get older they are still working to process what is happening in the world around them. They scream when they don’t know how else to express themselves.

They don’t yet have the vocabulary or critical thinking ability to communicate verbally, they feel intense pressure from the emotion they are experiencing and they need to let it out. Screaming is their pressure release valve as well as the language they use to express what they are feeling.

Why Do Kids Scream So Much When Playing?

Kids scream to express emotion. When you hear kids screaming when they are playing together, there is actually a lot going on in their development. It is usually quite healthy. They are learning to use their voices. They are learning to communicate with each other. They are expressing all the emotions that go into interacting with other kids.

If you pay close attention to how they play together, you will notice that screaming and yelling play a large part in how kids react to what they are experiencing. Children scream when they are happy, excited, angry, or sad. They scream when they are tired, frustrated or anxious. The tone and pitch with which they scream offers insight into what they are feeling and can give helpful clues to you as the parent for how to help them. Most of the time they should just work through it and figure it out with their peers. Other times it’s better for you to step in and figure it out together.

Why Do Kids Scream in Restaurants?

Discomfort, anxiety, and fear are all common reasons why kids scream in restaurants. They are in a new environment with which they are unfamiliar. It is noisy and does not offer them the space they need to move around and be a kid. This is most often what makes them irritable. They do not yet have the vocabulary or the executive function to express this to you verbally. As a result, they act out through screaming.

What Parents Should Do When a Child is Screaming

Parents should first determine what the desired behavior is that they want from their child. If your child is playing with their friends and they are all screaming together and having fun, that is probably perfectly fine and should be encouraged. If however, they are in a setting where screaming is inappropriate and you want them to stop, you should have a plan in place to make sure they modify their behavior as you expect.

Have A Vision

How do you stop a child from screaming? The key here is to understand that this is a process. Your child is not going to figure out how to stop screaming in one session with them. Your job is to set the roadmap and walk through it with them so they make progress towards the goal of managing their emotions and acting appropriately.

Positive reinforcement is the primary tool you will need to use to help them grow in a healthy way. This method can test your patience in the moment because we often want a more immediate resolution, but this is the best way to handle the situation over time.

Be Calm

As the parent, you are in control and you are the model for appropriate behavior. You need to do your best to keep your cool and talk your child through the screaming and whining that will inevitably take place. Calmly communicate to them what the expectation is. Don’t allow too much room for negotiation. You are the one setting the boundaries.  

Be Consistent with Expectations and Consequences

If the child still does not respond to your directive and the screaming tantrum continues, it may be best to try changing their setting. I have found this works quite well. If we are out at a restaurant and my child won’t stop screaming I take them outside. I am not punitive in my approach. I gently explain to them that we are going to go outside to have a talk.

Once we are outside I let them know that we are outside because of their behavior, and if they would like to go back into the restaurant with everyone else they need to correct their behavior. Sometimes they correct right away, other times we have to go for a short walk and talk it out. Either way is fine with me. It’ s better than experiencing the display that is a child’s tantrum in a public setting.

That usually works. If it doesn’t, my absolute last resort is to leave and try again another time. It may sound harsh, but it’s not that bad. I have only had to do this once or twice. Now that my kids know that I am not bluffing when I say “we are going to leave”, they straighten right up after the talk outside.

After we go in, sometimes we go out again for another talk, but I always see that the trajectory of their behavior getting better. Sometimes it just takes a little more time. That’s OK. I want to see progress forward.

Remember, you are doing your best to be calm throughout the entire process. If the child makes a poor choice, that’s on them and they will have to deal with the consequence. Over time it gets better. They key is for your kids to take you seriously. If they know your boundaries are firm they will be far less likely to push them. If you enforce them in a caring, calm and loving way they will remember you for that later.

Final Thoughts

Temper tantrums can be frustrating for parents. The sound of your child screaming will elevate emotions in you and challenge you to keep your cool. Your first job here is to keep your cool. Focus on the long-term, not the immediate issue. What do you want discipline in your home to look like? How do you want your kids to remember how you treated them when they were having a bad day?

Once you are calm, remember the expectations you want for your child and the process that you set out to ensure they meet those expectations. Don’t let your demeanor change. Understand that you may have to enforce your consequences and be willing to do so. It’s a short-term sacrifice that can produce positive long-term results.

Related Questions

At What Age Should a Child Stop Having Tantrums?

By 6 years old your child should no longer be having frequent tantrums. The occasional fit can pop up from time to time over the next couple of years, but you should see the frequency dwindle with each year that passes. Your focus should be on frequency.

Each year after Pre-K should get a little better. If the child is getting better over time and you think they are making good progress, stay the course. If you don’t see your child acquiring the tools to express their emotions in a more age-appropriate way, you may want to consider seeking some guidance through a counselor.

How Can a Parent Stay Calm With Their Kids?

It’s not always easy. First things first, you have to make sure you are taking care of yourself. Get enough rest and eat well. Understand where your child is in their development and determine if the behaviors they are demonstrating are normal for their age. If they are, try to empathize with what they are going through.

Growing up is not easy and they are trying to figure things out for themselves. Make sure they know you are their greatest support and everything you do for them has their best interested in mind. Be patient with yourself and patient with them, the relationship that you develop with them will be what matters most over time.

Dr. Patrick Capriola

Dr. Patrick Capriola is the founder of strategiesforparents.com. He is an expert in parenting, social-emotional development, academic growth, dropout prevention, educator professional development, and navigating the school system. He earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Florida in 2014. His professional experience includes serving as a classroom teacher, a student behavior specialist, a school administrator, and an educational trainer - providing professional development to school administrators and teachers, helping them learn to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of students. He is focused on growing strategiesforparents.com into a leading source for high-quality research-based content to help parents work through the challenges of raising a family and progressing through the school system.

Recent Content