Why Toddlers Shriek and Whine
The biggest banshee period—usually between 12 and 24 months—coincides with when toddlers are still learning and grappling with using their words, says pediatrician Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, author of Mommy Calls. For toddlers, it's a perfect expression of the louder class of emotions (excitement, rage) and they love to see the reaction it gets out of people. A shriek-fest is also a great way to greet a fellow toddler playmate, who might return the call back at her.
Frustration-induced screams are incredibly common among toddlers, who lack the verbal skills to say, "Darn it! This puzzle sure is tough." For some, a scream might precede more aggressive ways of getting what they want, like biting. "If you notice that pattern, that's your signal," says Altmann. "Look for those hints that they're starting to get worked up and frustrated," and view your toddler's scream as an early indication to intervene.
Screaming and whining are also both effective attention-getters. "Whining you see more once they're a little older and verbal. It's a way to get attention and get what they want out of you," says Altmann. It likely also signals their mood: Instead of excitedly tugging at your clothes to get your attention, whining might indicate sadness, boredom, or exhaustion.
What to Do
"Encourage their words," says Altmann. A child chooses screaming or whining because she believes it will be more effective than other options, so show her that talking gets results. "I like to say, 'I can't hear you. Use your words. Tell mommy what you want,'" says Altmann. If you need to, guide them through the process: "That was a loud scream. Are you trying to say you need help? Remember, you can just say, 'help!'"
For toddlers without words, Altmann suggests saying, "Take mommy's finger and show me what you want," and let your child pull you over to point to it. For whining, try, "I can't hear you. Please stop whining." Or, since whining usually doesn't mean your child's in danger, just ignore them. "If you ignore them, they'll come to you and start using their words," says Altmann.
Preventing screaming is the most peaceful option: Look for patterns in when your child begins to wail, and avoid or alter those circumstances. For example, if your child always fights over a certain toy at playgroup, bring extra similar toys next time.
Keep in Mind
Watch your volume. "Screaming can be modeled behavior. Make sure you try not to expose them to those behaviors. So don't argue or have words with your spouse in front of your children," says Altmann. Ditto for whining. If you resort to a stage-five pout when you really want your spouse/mother/child to do something, you're showing your toddler the power of annoying behavior.
If a bout of whining has recently popped up, try to figure out what may have triggered it. Maybe a new sibling has just arrived, or there's a substitute teacher at preschool that doesn't know your child very well. Be sure to answer your child's need for attention, just not in response to screaming or whining.