I know there are a lot of posts on here about screaming but I feel like my situation may be different. Feel free to mark this as a duplicate post if not...

My wife, my mother-in-law, my 19 month old son, and I are on a vacation. This has obviously been a difficult adjustment for our son and we've tried to make it as close to our routine as possible including:

  • Bringing lots of familiar toys.
  • Trying to have him nap/sleep at the same time as home (despite being in a different time zone).
  • eating similar foods that we know our son likes.

Despite that, he seems to have recently picked up a habit of high-pitched screaming when he doesn't get something he wants. I don't recall him doing this before our vacation.

An example would be a tendency to "run wild" in public areas (e.g. aquariums, ice cream shops, bookstores, pools, malls, plane flights, etc). I realize that he's a kid and needs some measure of safe independence but eventually we need to "wrangle" him in and continue with whatever we're trying to do (continue visiting other parts of the aquarium, stay in the safe kiddie pool area, wait in line behind other folks at a store, etc).

When that happens, he tends to unleash a ridiculously high-pitched scream. Sometime it's multiple short bursts. Other times its lengthy.

During these episodes, he's clearly frustrated and admittedly, I'm not at my own personal best -- I usually feel mortified and immediately aware of the inconvenience (or perceived inconvenience) this may be causing others. I realize that's not the best perspective and am trying to work on that. I wish I could just shut the world out and deal with my son one-on-one.

In terms of addressing our son, I've tried a variety of things including:

  • time outs if a quiet area is available.
  • offering hugs and trying to comfort.
  • trying to distract with something else.
  • trying to give advanced notice if something is changing "OK david, in 5 minutes we're going to be leaving..." although I doubt he has a concept of time yet.

I'm not sure if anything is really helping to prevent future episodes so I can't tell if what I'm doing is making things worse.

Since he's 19 months old, he only knows a handful of words and can't really articulate how he's feeling through spoken word. I understand that's part of why he's screaming -- he's frustrated and trying to communicate during a tantrum.

Is this making any sense? Is there anything I can do? I'm honestly and sincerely dreading the 4.5 hour flight back home next week and feel like everything I'm doing now is just making things worse. :-(

2 Answers 2


Please know that this is pretty normal behavior. It sounds like your child might be overwhelmed (be it from a combination of fatigue and new experiences, so much time spent in crowds, or other), and in someone that age, screaming is a way to not only release stress but to call attention to the need the child has for other (I need to run around, I need to nap, I need to eat, I need some peace and quiet! Whatever other is.)

I'm not recommending this, but if you were to take a day off from vacationing, and stay in/near your hotel (the room, the lobby, some exercize in an empty corridor, a little stroll in the park, etc.) you might notice a fairly different kid!

During these episodes, he's clearly frustrated and admittedly, I'm not at my own personal best -- I usually feel mortified and immediately aware of the inconvenience (or perceived inconvenience) this may be causing others. I realize that's not the best perspective and am trying to work on that. I wish I could just shut the world out and deal with my son one-on-one.

Almost every parent has felt the way you do when their child is acting up. It's great that you recognize how much it stresses you out, but it's even more stressful for your son. Yes, you'll get a few looks, but forget about it. The people giving you looks screamed as toddlers, too (they just don't remember it.) If they were lucky, they had a loving and understanding parent like you; if they weren't, they got spanked for a perfectly normal and natural behavior.

If you're distressed at his public outbursts, make them less public by removing yourself to a secluded place where you can interact with your child without guilt/judgement. But don't discipline your son. He's too young just yet to benefit from a time out or a consequence.

What he's not too young for is starting to learn feeling words. A rich emotional vocabulary is a great gift to give your child. Name his emotions while you deal with them. It might feel silly to mention "frustrated" to such a young child, so break it down for him:

'Frustrated' is how I feel when I want something but I can't have it. Maybe you feel frustrated when you want to walk around alone but you can't because it's not safe. It's ok to feel frustrated, or sad, or tired, or mad even. But it's better to feel happy. Would a hug make you happy? Or a little story or a song? What would you like that might make you feel happier? Can you tell me?

You might feel awkward talking to your child this way, but your child understands more than he can verbalize. He'll catch on to some of it, and you're speaking soothingly. It gives you something to do while your adrenaline level goes down.

Not only are you teaching your child about feelings and how to express himself, but you're paying attention to his feelings, which is priceless.

  • Firstly, thanks for such a detailed and thorough response. I have a followup question though. You mentioned that it's probably too early for any kind of discipline -- at what age is it appropriate? When I can have a full conversation with him about why?
    – Mike B
    Nov 11, 2017 at 4:47
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    @MikeB - I think 24 months is when I would start giving time outs, though you should start to talk to him about untoward behavior now. As I stated, he understands a lot more language that he speaks, and if you start telling him what is unacceptable now, it won't com as a surprise when he starts getting time outs for it later. You can do both (pay attention to his feelings) and explain to him better ways to express himself, though he isn't capable at this point of control his reactions well. I would recommend 123 Magic for a good understanding and application of time outs. Nov 11, 2017 at 14:05
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    Though some disagree, I think it's a very good resource, and the method works. Be sure to apply wisely, consistently and lovingly. It worked beautifully for my kids. Please note I'm speaking of everyday misbehaviors here. The really bad ones (biting/hitting/hurting) need time outs already. Nov 11, 2017 at 14:10

You state that this behavior occurs "when he doesn't get something he wants".

Inappropriate screaming and running-wild behavior at this age is basically just acting-out: the child thinks that his behavior will get him what he wants -- the ability to have something inappropriate for the situation, and in lieu of that, SOME kind of parental attention (positive/negative/anything-at-all). To stop this behavior cold, you have to IGNORE it. Do NOT give him what he wants (your attention), or it will simply continue because, for him, IT WORKS.

Say nothing. Do not react. Grab him by the hand/arm and walk briskly to an uninteresting place where you feel comfortable: outside, the restroom, a secluded corner, some place where he will feel totally BORED. Now, not letting go of him, pull out your cellphone and pretend to be COMPLETELY involved in something on the screen. Do NOT react to anything he screams, says or does. Do not acknowledge him IN ANY WAY.

Once you feel the behavior has subsided, say, "Okay, let's go back", and then return to where you were and what you were doing before. Say nothing else. Act completely normal, as if absolutely NOTHING has happened. Repeat as necessary.

P.S. Anticipate that this will happen on the airplane. Talk to the flight attendant ahead of time. Plan where you will go (hopefully a restroom will be available!).

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