How to calm your screaming toddler

Toddler screaming is a frustrating (but totally normal!) thing. You may not be able to stop this very loud phase in its tracks, but there are strategies you can use to quiet things down.

A toddler girl lying on a bed screaming; her brother is smiling in the background.
Photo credit: / SolStock

It was one thing when your toddler tested out their vocal chords in the privacy of your home; sure, it may have been loud and made you long for some earplugs, but you handled it. But lately, your screaming toddler has been taking their vocal theatrics outside, yelling at the grocery store, in the car, and during toddler time at the library. You’re embarrassed, distracted, and getting dirty looks.

Now what?

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Rest assured, toddler screaming is a normal phase of development, but there are ways to redirect or adapt to your 1-year-old’s newfound habit of screaming all day. Here’s what you can do about it.

Why does my toddler scream so much?

Even though toddler screaming may seem unnecessary, there’s probably a reason for it, including:

They're trying to get your attention. Some toddlers scream whenever they want a parent's attention. It's their way of saying, "Hey, look at me!" Depending on your child’s age and stage of development, they might not have the vocabulary to actually say that to you yet; but since they’ve been screaming since birth, they’ve definitely got that skill down.

They're expressing their feelings. Some toddlers scream to express strong emotions. They may scream for joy, but more often it’s because of anger or frustration. When they want something they can't have, their shrieking means, "I want my way – give it to me now!" Sometimes this screaming is the precursor to a full-blown temper tantrum, so if you can diffuse it early, it may save you a headache later.

They're having fun. If you’ve ever screamed on a roller coaster, then you know sometimes your toddler might just be screaming for fun. Your toddler's volume is turned way up not to intentionally annoy you, but because they're relishing in some wonderful toddler exuberance. Toddlers love to explore the power of their voice and experiment with how to use it.

These reasons might be frustrating for you, but screaming is part of the toddler package, and is totally normal. Toddlers have a lot of wants and needs, but not many words to describe them. By 18 months, most toddlers are trying to say several single words, but at this point, they still have way more feelings than their vocabulary can handle, so it's no wonder they're frustrated!

Toddler screaming usually starts up and peaks between ages 1 and 2. The good news? They'll grow out of the screaming phase as their vocabulary grows.

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How can I stop or try to minimize the toddler screaming?

For many parents, the most difficult part of coping with a screaming toddler is ignoring other people's looks. Just remember that every parent has been there, and try not to take it personally.

Screaming back at your toddler to tell them to lower their voice won't help – it only sends the message that whoever is loudest prevails. Your best bet is to avoid situations that tempt your toddler to raise their voice and divert their attention when they do start screaming. 

Here are some more tips for stopping your child from screaming for no reason:

Ask them to use an indoor voice. If your toddler is screaming because they’re happy, try not to comment or criticize. But if it's really getting to you, ask them to use their "indoor voice." And lower your own voice so they'll have to quiet down to hear you.

Acknowledge their feelings. If your toddler is screaming because they want your attention, ask yourself whether they're genuinely uncomfortable or overwhelmed. For example, if you're in a huge supermarket packed with people, the environment may very well be too much for them. Leave as soon as you can, step outside if your partner is with you, or try to wrap up your shopping quickly.

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If you think they’re just a little bored or cranky, acknowledge that. Calmly say, "I know you want to go home, but it will be a few more minutes until we're done," and push on. They'll not only be comforted that you know how they feel, it will help them learn how to put their feelings into words.

If you know your toddler is shouting because they think they can get you to hand over a cookie right away, don't give in. Giving them what they want when they scream only reinforces the behavior. Instead, calmly say to your child, "I know you want a cookie, but we have to finish this first. You can have a cookie when we're done." 

Make a game out of it. Try indulging their need to be loud by saying, "Let's both shriek as loud as we can," and then join them in letting it rip. Convince them to turn down the volume by saying, "Now it's time to see who can whisper best." Then, like a Simon Says game, switch to other movements, such as putting your hands over your ears or jumping up and down. This makes screaming seem like just one of many fun things they can do. 

Of course, that game works best at home or outdoors. If you're out in public you can try a quieter game, such as saying, "Oh, you sound like a lion! Can you sound like a kitten?" If they’re willing to play along, come up with other quiet animals they can imitate.

Keep them occupied. You can make errands more fun for your toddler by engaging them in an activity. Talk about what you’re doing and why or point out people and things around you – when your toddler is busy, they're less likely to be screaming out of boredom. You can also ask your toddler to help you pick things off the shelves at the supermarket or make up a song about what you're doing. Or try offering them a favorite snack or toy to keep them busy while you shop. 

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Run errands on their schedule. It's not always possible to work around your toddler, but whenever you can, make sure they’re well-rested and fed before you leave the house. 

Stick to noisy restaurants. When you have your toddler in tow, it might be a good idea to stay away from quiet, intimate, or formal places to dine. Instead, go where other families go. You'll be less embarrassed when your child screams in an already loud restaurant – and less likely to reinforce their behavior by cajoling them to settle down.

Ignore it. This is definitely easier said than done, and you might not be able to do this when your toddler is screaming in the checkout line, but at home you do have the option to simply ignore their screaming. Depending on your child’s age, they may get the message that screaming does not, in fact, get them what they want. And for some kids, getting any kind of response or attention only reinforces that screaming is a reasonable way of communicating.

For example, instead of asking your child to use their indoor voice, wait out the screaming and only acknowledge them when they're being quiet. Make sure you talk this out with your child, though, saying something like “Oh, thank you for being quiet! You can have the blue cup now.” 

When to talk to the doctor about a screaming toddler

You probably don’t need to mention your toddler’s screaming to their doctor: It’s a normal-but-annoying phase of childhood, and should start to improve as their language develops.

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By the age of 2, many toddlers are quickly growing their vocabulary and may even be putting two words together into short phrases. As they get better at verbally getting their point across, they should rely on screaming less to communicate with you. That said, if you’ve reinforced or rewarded screaming behavior in the past, it might take a little longer to kick the habit.

There are times, however, when you might want to mention your toddler’s screaming to their doctor. Here are some instances:

They’re waking up screaming at night. This usually points to night terrors, which aren’t inherently dangerous but can be disruptive to your child’s sleep (and just upsetting in general, to toddlers and parents alike). Your child’s doctor can talk you through the best way to handle these sleep disturbances.

They’re not developing speech at a typical rate. All kids grow on their own timeline and there’s definitely some wiggle room when it comes to hitting speech milestones. Still, if your child is over 18 months old and screaming to communicate because they can’t imitate sounds or understand simple words, requests, or questions directed at them, it’s a good idea to check in with your child’s doctor.

They’re injuring themselves while screaming. If your toddler’s screaming is accompanied by any kind of self-injurious behavior, it's best to run that by your child’s doctor. Many kids bang their heads, pull their hair, and bite themselves when they’re frustrated – and it’s frequently not a cause for concern or a sign of a larger developmental problem. It’s always a good idea to check, though, and ask how you can implement strategies to help keep them safe.

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They have other signs of a developmental delay. All by itself, toddler screaming isn’t a sign of autism. If screaming is just one concerning issue among many, however, it’s smart to clue your child’s doctor into whatever you’ve been noticing. Other signs of developmental delays that may be signs of autism in kids aged 1 to 2 include not using gestures, not pointing to objects, a sudden loss of skills they previously had, and limited speech, among others.

Read more:

How to handle your young child's defiant behavior

Easing your toddler or preschooler's fears

Getting your toddler to listen

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Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is a freelance health and parenting writer from Connecticut, where she lives with a lot of boys (a husband, three sons, and a golden retriever). When she isn't writing, Bradley is usually homeschooling, binge-watching TV shows, and taking care of her many houseplants. She might also be baking a cake.