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My 4 year old has a very high-pitched scream. It used to cause pain in my ears when she first started doing it (when she was 2 if I remember right?) but it doesn't anymore; I think the high-pitched portion of my hearing got killed off. Back when she first started she would scream several times a day for various reasons (listed below), then there's been a bit of a lull, and now at 4.5 years old she's starting to do it a lot again.

These screams aren't associated with tantrums. They often are associated with her being frustrated, but not always. Some are screams of excitement/enjoyment, and occasionally some are more along the lines of natural communication, like she sees screaming is just one form of voice, along with talking, singing, and humming. They usually only last for one to a few seconds.

To be clear, these are loud, high-pitched, "sounds like something's wrong" kind of screams. When she does it when happy while playing outside, I worry that neighbors will think something is seriously wrong, that's the kind of screaming she does even when it's a scream of joy.

I don't react well when she screams. Initially it was because of the pain the screams caused, but now it's because I want her to not use screaming as a part of her normal communication. I only recently started telling her to, yes, please scream if she gets hurt or something really bad happens. Back when she first started screaming, I would reactively cover my ears because of the pain they caused, which is behavior that I've seen both my children mirror sometimes. I no longer do that because, as I said, the screams no longer cause pain in my ears. Lately my reaction to her screaming has mostly been a stern "please, stop screaming", but even more recently both my wife and I have almost unconsciously been escalating our reactions and the consequences for her when she engages in what I'm mentally terming "inappropriate screaming."

She is capable of expressing herself in ways other than screaming. We have seen it many times, more times than the screaming honestly. (Until very recently, screaming in frustration only happened a minority fraction of the times she got frustrated). Her vocabulary is good for her age, and she has described her feelings and frustrations to us with words, especially with our encouragement. But again, her screaming is more than just a reaction to frustration, it seems to be just another word in her vocabulary that she uses to express frustration, joy, happiness, boredom, etc.

How can I teach her appropriate times for screaming? How can I react better to her screaming so it's not such a gut reaction on my end? Is this even an appropriate age to try to be teaching appropriate screaming? At the very least, I hope I can help her scream more quietly while she's outside so she doesn't inadvertently cry wolf to the neighbors. I don't want them (or me) to ignore screams we should be paying attention to because it doesn't sound any different than her normal communication.

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    We always say "If you want to scream, go outside or go in your room and close the door." This has worked more or less since she was 2. If she actually wants to scream as such, she goes outside, and if she's just trying to express her joy or whatever, she finds a different method (sometimes with our help). But if she doesn't stop screaming, I will just move her to a more appropriate location. Jan 24 at 16:09
  • @MissMonicaE - There have been times when I've suffered horribly from a neighbor who was trained only to scream outside. But I'm glad that worked well for you. Jan 25 at 4:52
  • @aparente001 yeah I would only say "in your room with the door shut" if it were a problem for our neighbors, but our neighborhood (and my kid's volume) makes it work well. Jan 25 at 19:54
  • @MissMonicaE - Lucky! Jan 29 at 1:38

2 Answers 2

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I've got a bunch of things you might want to try. Most of them I got through trial and error.

  1. Talk it over with your child at a different time -- not when the screaming is happening or is recent. (I got this from the clown interview on The Longest Shortest Time.)

  2. Explain, "screaming can be fun for you when you're doing it -- but for me, it really, really hurts when I'm in the same room with you." Let that sink in -- maybe review that part several days in a row. The next step is to warn her, "It hurts so much, that when you're screaming, I'm going to leave the room until you're ready to use your Big Girl Voice." When you do that, check on her every couple of minutes, because you leaving could be frightening for her.

  3. If the screaming is a group activity (e.g., play date), then you may need to warn that there will be separate time-outs for both or all of the children. If that doesn't work, the child may need to go home. Plan ahead with the other parent(s).

  4. Notice what tends to trigger it, along with the time of day and setting. A log could be helpful. How can this help? If you see any patterns, you'll have an easier time with PREVENTION. For example, one of my children has Tourette Syndrome, which features rage episodes. A specialist told us not to draw a line in the sand anywhere near bedtime. She was right and it helped.

  5. My pediatrician allowed me to make a "parent appointment" -- this could be helpful for something like this.

  6. I used to use the following with children who visited for a birthday or play date: "When you scream, something in me panics. I'm afraid someone has gotten seriously hurt! So unless I have to drive someone to the emergency room -- please, no screaming. If it's something else, just come and find me and we can talk about it." The first time, I projected an attitude that the child didn't realize it was a problem. The reminders were shorter.

  7. I trained a nephew out of whining with: "Can you tell me that with your "voz de hombre" ("big boy voice" in English, I guess).

  8. Gradually build up a repertoire of ways of calming down.

  9. You could add foods to the log.

  10. Rather than "Stop that," you could say, "ouch" and walk away.

  11. You could go to the park together and people-watch. Help her notice screaming babies, and screaming older children. Explain that the screamers might be overexcited, and explain that you are especially sensitive to the sound of screaming. (That might not be true, but it can help her from feeling that you're laying all the blame on her.)

  12. Teach her about decibels/volume, and pitch, with simple graphs, and some recording software, e.g. Audacity. Tell her to start after you've stepped out of the room and closed the door, and tell her to come get you when she's done recording her snippet. Show her the thing on the microphone where you can adjust the gain. Let her listen to her recording samples with headphones or ear buds, so she can hear what distortion (from no gain adjustment) sounds like. At four, numbers are often tough, but simple graphs are often understandable.

Note, if there seems to be an empathy deficit (compared to other 4yos), you may want to ask the primary to screen for various possible conditions.

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    What is a "parent appointment" with the pediatrician?
    – Spiros
    Jan 24 at 10:43
  • @Spiros I'd say it's one with no children, just the pediatrician and you (the parent), so you can freely talk about the child's issues without the child being around. Useful if you can't just call your pediatrician and discuss the matter by phone.
    – walen
    Jan 24 at 16:15
  • Both my children used to do this kind of "inappropriate screaming", and I got them to stop using several of the techniques proposed here. +1
    – walen
    Jan 24 at 16:18
  • @walen, yes, it's an appointment the parent has with the doctor, without the child present. / Which ones worked for you? Jan 25 at 4:46
  • @aparente001 Mostly 2, 3, 6 and 7. Glad to see you around and well.
    – walen
    Jan 25 at 9:34
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This does not seem to be different from teaching her to regulate all other kinds of behavior. Part of growing up is becoming less self-centered. We become gradually aware that what we do may have an impact on other people, positive or negative.

The parents' role in this process is to sharpen their senses in this respect and make them become aware of their surroundings. In particular, we would prefer if the children didn't excessively and unnecessarily bother anybody, including ourselves. As always, conflicting interests need a compromise — we didn't have children because we wanted a quiet, noiseless life, after all, and their natural state is probably being louder than the typical adult. But screaming for no good reason, especially when other means of communication are available, has little benefit to her but is fairly annoying to other people.

So simply use the means you use for encouraging other behavior: Potty training, cleaning up after herself, taking her shoes off when she comes into the house, and so on. Probably there are other instances when you try to change specifically a behavior that is annoying, like disturbing you in a video conference during home office. Whatever you do in those circumstances, do it here, too.

A specific somewhat counterintuitive reaction that comes to mind is to tell her to go and scream elsewhere, and close the door after herself. The message would be that you don't mind her screaming a such, but please not in your vicinity. Because she probably seeks your attention with it that would make it less attractive.

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  • "So simply use the means you use for encouraging other behavior: Potty training, cleaning up after herself..." we've unfortunately found nothing that encourages behavior for her. Nothing we tried with potty training worked for more than a few days. Jan 30 at 16:48
  • @NeutronStar OK, then the question is much more broad than only about screaming: It is generally about regulating one's (i.e., her) behavior. Jan 30 at 21:48

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