What would you do with this screaming child?


Recently, a grandmother who has been the primary caregiver for her toddler grandchild contacted me. One evening, her grandchild was returned after spending time with other relatives. When he came in, he rushed over and hugged her, which was his normal ritual. He then looked around her home and began to scream.

She proceeded with her normal routine of getting him settled into her home. Nothing she did worked.

  • She asked if he’d like to take a bath.
  • She gave him the choice of a bath with bubbles or no bubbles.
  • She asked him to pick out the toys he wanted in the bathtub.
  • She asked, “Do you want some juice? Or some milk?”
  • After the bath, she laid out a couple of pairs of pajamas and asked him to point to the ones he wanted to wear.

Throughout the entire evening, he just screamed at the top of his lungs.

  • She picked him up and put him in the bathtub. He screamed.
  • She put toys in the tub. He screamed.
  • She got a glass of juice for him. He screamed.
  • He screamed when she laid out the pajamas.
  • She told him to find his favorite book, and she’d read him a bedtime story. He screamed.
  • She tried holding him. He screamed.

This grandmother tried things that normally work. Giving him choices, trying to get his approval for taking a bath by asking if he wanted a bath, and offering him a drink were all met with screaming. She checked to make sure he wasn’t hurting or had a cut or a bruise.

Issues that might have been going on

  • The child has delayed speech and language skills. It is possible he might have been upset and didn’t how to tell her what was bothering him.
  • He doesn’t like to be in crowds or around new people. More than likely, he was around a lot of people he didn’t know over the weekend, and it scared him.
  • He may have been wondering if his “Nana,” the name he calls her, was going to stick around for him. His little mind might have wondered when Nana was going to disappear. After all, she had been the only consistent person in his young life.
  • Perhaps he just didn’t want to his auntie to leave, or maybe he wanted to stay a little longer at the other house.
  • Maybe he was hurt or scared at the other house. Perhaps something happened to him and sent his brain into the survival mode, and it got stuck there.

Helpful tips to pass along to single parents and grandparents caring for children in single parent homes

  • When the toddler started yelling, he was saying, “Something is wrong, but I don’t know how to tell you what it is.” At this point, offer him empathy. You may have to try to guess what is bothering him. Your conversation might go something like one of the following:
    • Oh, Jacob, it must be hard to leave your auntie. You like going to her house, don’t you? You didn’t want to leave?
    • Were you wondering if Nana was going to be here to greet you when you got home? I will always be here.
    • Jacob, I bet there were a lot of people at your auntie’s this weekend. You don’t like to be around a lot of people do you? Well, we are going to have a nice, quiet evening tonight.
  • If he doesn’t respond to these conversation starters, start describing what his body is doing.
    • Jacob, your face is going like this (imitate his facial expression), and your shoulders are going like this (imitate what his body is doing).
    • (When he looks at you, add:) It seems to me you are ____________. (Do your best to fill in the blank.)
  • Once he has calmed down, tell him in a comforting voice what is going to happen next. Children who are scared and upset can’t make decisions. Deciding between a bath with or without bubbles is too complicated and tiring for him, so tell him what is going to happen.

    • I’m so glad you are home. Come on. Let’s get you in the bathtub. I’m going to get out some of your favorite bath toys for you to play with.
    • After your bath, Nana is going to help you put on your blue pajamas. They will feel so good when you are all clean.
  • If the child calms down, he can then make a choice between juice and milk and pick out a storybook. If hasn’t calmed down, keep using a soft but reassuring voice telling him what is going to happen next.

These are also great tips to use in the church nursery, preschool classrooms and young elementary age children whose parents have separated or are divorced.

When young children don’t have the verbal skills to tell us what is wrong, we have to help them by giving them the language or the words they need. Patience, soothing voices, empathy, and love help bring their bodies into control and rewire their brains for success.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on January 14, 2015.

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2 thoughts on “What would you do with this screaming child?

  1. Most of this was good, but I disagree with the “Helpful Tips” so-called conversation starters; “Were you wondering if Nana was going to be here?” “You don’t like being around a lot of people, do you?” I believe we cause children to develop certain mindsets when we ask them leading questions such as these, and cause them to be insecure.

    • Thank you Tina. I agree with what you said in most cases. In this situation the grandmother knew what her grandson was afraid of and knew the things that bothered him. Sometimes with non verbal children we just have to guess what is bothering them the best we can. The whole idea was offering this child empathy and giving him words or language he needed so he could express himself and his fears to his grandmother.

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