Ask Lori - Conscious Parenting Advice

My two-year-old daughter (2nd child of three; older sister is 3.5 and younger brother is 3.5 months) breaks into a screaming fit whenever she wants something. It's a horrid ear-piercing scream that we (there are 5 in our family) are so exhausted of hearing, because she does it constantly all day long.

How do I get her to ask for what she wants instead of crying and screaming? Her language is still very limited, but she has a daily growing vocabulary and many of the things she cries for, she knows how to say. I repeatedly tell her to say "ask mama for what you want"..."what do you need?"..."how can mama help you?"...but it doesn't stop until she gets what she wants.  - SMA

Hello SMA,

Well, first let me state the obvious - you have your blessed hands full with three children under the age of four!

Sounds much like wrangling a parade of small circus monkeys, They're adorable and small, making noise, hanging on you, constantly seeking your attention and affection - all the while creating a glorious mess in your lovely home, I'm sure.

Let's run through the ABC's of Conscious Parenting to point out a few key ideas and give you some sample language to help you shift to a state of conscious calm (as much as possible).

Attachment and Bonding

You are at the beginning stages of building a life-long bond with your children. Several little people desperately need you to interact with them on a constant basis and depend on you for virtually every need and desire.

They rely on your adult capacities so much, that you MUST take time to honor, love yourself and breathe - A LOT.

Due to the emotional maturity of your children and the conflicts that arise from so many competing needs, you may experience a pressure-cooker like environment at times.

And your kids will feel it too!

This has tremendous effect on the way their brains deal with incoming stimulus. There are a lot of people to wrangle and many feelings, needs and ideas to consider.

This can be overwhelming for everyone and especially your daughter who simply does not have the brain power to formulate questions AND speak them at an appropriate volume if her brain is on overload from a lot of external stimuli - which can be a natural part of large families.

Speaking of large families, my husband is the youngest of twelve born in under fifteen years - so take a moment to reflect on those proportions and have a laugh - or a gasp... before I share with you a much simpler reality :)

You have probably heard how birth order affects behavior.  At only two years old, your daughter's needs are caught between a helpless infant, who likely needs your undivided attention, and a bigger, more eloquent older sibling - so screaming, in her mind, is probably nothing more than a "noticeable entrance."

It is only with time and nurturing that she will develop an efficient stress-response system, which will give her the ability to deal with every-day stressors and the capacity to think about her actions beforehand.

I would suggest noticing how much other family members scream to get their needs met. The baby probably screams a bunch and probably gets a lot of attention this way. So for your daughter, it seems like a perfectly reasonable strategy.

Acknowledge this possibility with her...

"Are you screaming because baby brother does? He screams a lot when he needs things, doesn't he?"

"Do you scream because you want to be my baby too?"

"Words are fun to use too!"

"Mama and Daddy use words because they help people know what we want"

But what about big sister or Mom or Dad? Do they scream, yell or raise their voices with each other? If it is a family issue as well, then it would help to have everyone pitch in on the solution. Aside from baby brother that is :)

If she is solely interested in exercising her lung power - you may have to wait until this developmental milestone has passed to see it disappear forever but you can make it easier on yourself by engaging in a regular practice of mindfulness, meditation, self-empathy and anger-management, which will help you not take her behavior so personally.

Also, make it a game! For example, bath time is "loud voices" time and breakfast is "soft voices" time. "Oh it's clean-up time - let's use our loud crazy voices."

Kids love to PLAY!

Make it random, be creative, flowing and stay connected to your source of well-being as you give her real opportunities to express herself unhindered.

Before approaching conflict management, keep your face relaxed and remember to take time out for yourself if you need it, before connecting with your kids.

Learn to allow the screams to ring through you, but not rattle you!

When she screams for something, say in your extra soft voice (loving, not critical or showing "hurt" or disappointment - Think "Mr Rogers"  his slow, soothing tone is Perfect for toddlers.) -

"Ouch, that hurts Mamas ears"

"Let's help you get what you need."

"You don't have to scream, Mama hears you."

"I'll help you, you don't have to scream to get my attention."

Now she may not stop immediately in the moment and sometimes this makes parents think - oh this isn't working - and they resort back to more negative or demanding reactions or requests for compliance.

We ARE bigger and stronger but your force only builds fear. You are building a relationship and that takes TIME. This is not a sprint to raise "the most adult-like" little kid by age 5. Growing up takes over 20 years. Kids don't "get it" in just a few.

When we react instead of respond - it is often because we are not properly nurtured, stressed or lacking food/sleep/connection or when we have unconscious fears lurking in our psyches - controlling our actions without our conscious approval and unknowingly reacting with anger, judgment, frustration, exhaustion...

Uncover the meaning behind your own reactions. When you or your child is upset - there is not something to fix, there is something to know!  Your emotional state has a direct effect on your daughter's subsequent reactions. She is picking up on your vibes more than she is hearing and processing your words.

As you become more peaceful,  your child's brain  (mirror neurons) will match your emotions and meet you in a place of love, because that is what you offered and love is her natural state.

Brain & Child Development

Ruling out all other factors that could be contributing to her behavior aside from her age - temperament (my own kid was an ear-piercer) a sensitive system, stress, food additives/dyes/nutrition and inadequate sleep, screaming is very age appropriate.

Your daughter's immature brain receives input and interprets it through the extremely-limited filter of experience that she has. She has very few strategies for getting her needs met and children at this age cannot help but reach for the fastest, easiest and MOST FUN strategy.

She can't predict consequences or plan things out yet... so she resorts to first, easy, quick, despite being "told" things over and over.

Screaming is obviously a fun way for kids to test their voices, learn about their range and hear the sounds they can make. So please know that while it may seem like you are not succeeding in guiding her to better uses of her vocal chords - you are - it just takes time and repetition.

Ages 0-4 is the time when kids are learning most about their emotions and begin to develop coping skills. Most of her responses to the world are coming from the emotional part of the brain (the limbic system) - and because of this, the expression of her feelings can often be loud and erratic.

Learning is at its core - a social activity.

This is why "telling" kids what to do is ineffective in teaching children lessons. And at 2, telling is usually a waste of your time. Children are watching you - deal with your spouse, neighbor, mother and grocery store clerk. They are learning more about appropriate (or not) social interaction in this way, than they are while listening to repeated requests or lectures.

At this stage, your job is to teach your kids about all their big feelings. Little kids, under the age of about 4-5 have huge, giant feelings about EVERYTHING.

Our brains do 95% of their developing in the first five years. In those first five years is a crucial window into the development of a healthy regulatory system, which is helps us manage our emotions and transitions in responsible ways.Babies under a year have no coping skills and depend on a caregiver to do it for them by responding to their cues.

Your little ones can't do it alone.

Little kids feel things so much that those feelings can easily overtake their perspective. We know how emotions can overwhelm adults - but we have a lifetime of experience and coping skills to draw on - kids are still developing theirs and rely on a connected adult to help them through unfamiliar emotional waves.

Whether that means keeping them safe during times of fun and excitement or giving them better strategies in times of anger. Your daughter's growth depends on your response to her behaviors.

If you respond with irritation or disappointment about "yet another scream," she will mirror that vibration back to you and maintain her stance. Only it's because - she's assuming that THIS is how she is supposed to react - based on the information she received from your tone, energy and lastly your language. And so, the battle of unacknowledged feelings begins.

Her needs can be met through enhancing her emotional literacy and giving her the language to express her feelings which will lead to the development of the behaviors you want.  It sounds like you are doing that already.

The difference is in our approach. No demands/pleads/requests to "ask another way" but reflecting back to her the emotions she is showing and even her screams or grunts.

I am not sure from your question if her screams are done in frustration about not be able to communicate what she wants or if they are "just for fun and/or because it works!" - or both!  This distinction is mostly important for you in identifying her needs.

I will assume that she displays both types of screaming (don't all kids?) and include some language scenarios for each and then you can adapt it to your unique situation.

Compassionate Communication

At this stage it is about REFLECTING and REGULATING.
  • Emotions
  • Feelings
  • Wants/Desires
  • Behaviors
If she is having trouble communicating her ideas even though she may know some of the words, as mentioned earlier, it may be the anxiety of so many people OR a well-meaning but untimely response (in her view) from you, that is triggering her screams.

If her brain is on overload (happens often at age 2) when something doesn't go as expected or happen fast enough - she is not aware of what will happen next, she can't predict - "Oh Mom will know - even if I can't figure out that darn word... she'll know what I mean." or "Mom will be right here. She said she'd get "it" and so I'm sure she's coming."

She can only think "I don't have my milk, toy, a hug etc..." or "I'm feeling overwhelmed and food helps me regulate - or - my doll, dad's arms etc... I need it now!"

When this happens, her brain connection to higher functioning is shut down and she loses access to language and self-control. Guiding her back to her natural state of love is accomplished by acknowledging her emotions and frustration about the situation, naming them and showing empathy.

Mirror her tone and reaction. Not in a mocking way, but in an honest, empathetic way, showing her that you know what she feels and at the same time, giving her the language that she can't access in the moment.

For example -


"You're telling Mama, Listen to ME! Help me."

"Screaming feels good! It's LOUD!!" "Look at me! I'm here too!"

"You're very upset! You're screaming loud, loud LOUD because you want something and it's not here fast!"

"You want it NOW!"

I believe in teaching kids to breathe deeply - early and often - it is the fastest way to regulate the human brain.

"Breathe (say her name or a loving nickname) Deep breaths, watch Mama."

Show her how to inhale deeply and exhale. (This will help you too!) Hold your hands over your heart center and ask her to pick a color. Breathe it in. If she ignores you, it's ok. Don't force her to imitate you - just keep showing her.

And don't try and make her use words to "tell you what she wants." If you truly don't know what she is asking for, assume she can't tell you because of her state of regulation - and be curious, investigate.

"You want Mama to know what you want. TO KNOW NOW!"

"It makes you mad that I don't understand."

"Mama will help you. It looks like you want a snack (book, mama to hold you....)."

Start naming things until you know what she is seeking. Try to avoid reasoning in the heat of the moment. Save teaching times for after. With little kids, it should be right after and be repetitive over time. If it is a need which you can't meet in the moment - such as attention in the form of picking her up, you can still give empathy. Empathy does not mean to try and defend yourself, advise, counsel, convince, compare, persuade, judge or induce guilt.

Just listen and reflect.

These sample statements are not meant to be listed for your child like bullet points, take long pauses and once you know the need, stick with reflecting it.

"I'm hearing that you don't want to stop screaming."

"You want my attention and this is how you're telling me."

"Mama is listening to you. You're mad MAD, you want Mama to pick you up!"

"Mama's holding little brother and that makes you sad. You want Mama to hold you. That's the best!"

"When Mama holds you, you feel safe. I wish I could hold you forever, all the time."

This is where we tend to over-do it with our little ones. You don't need to give her a thousand "why's" that only emphasize the "negative" or talk about what can happen "later." Just let her know that you know how she feels.

Stay with reflecting feelings and giving empathy until everyone is back on track emotionally. Then you can approach solving problems and offering new strategies. Once she is calm - she can hear you. Her brain is receptive to learning and you can talk about the situation.

"You wanted Mama to get that for you fast!"

"Sometimes Mama needs your help."

"Screaming is so loud. It's hard for Mama to understand your screams."

"I want to help you find the words, will you help me do that next time?"

"Screaming is so loud, let's use our inside voices." 

"Sometimes it is hard for you not to have Mama's attention."

"So many people talking. Do you feel like Mama forgot you?"

"You don't have to scream to tell me that you need me."

"I want to help you use your words, deep breaths help."

"I'm sorry if you thought I wasn't listening. I will be here, even if I can't do exactly what you want."

Remember to keep love in front of the reaction! Frame your view of the problem as "How can I help my child in this situation and how can I build our relationship?" instead of "How can I change my child's behavior?" Approach situations openly and with curiosity.

When you have nothing else, you always have EMPATHY.

Give yourself and your children lots of extra consideration and empathy for the incredible journey you are all on and practice as much self-care as you can. At her age, behavior can't be expected to disappear overnight but as she matures, your caring responses will have created positive brain connections that will drive her automatic behaviors - in a GOOD way!


Lori Petro, BSEd. is a speaker and certified parent educator assisting families in their journey to peaceful conflict resolution and compassionate communication.  Follow us on the FACEBOOK PAGE for daily support.
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