Your toddler’s voice may be music to your ears, but when his screaming is out of control, it sounds more like a five-alarm fire. Temper tantrums, complete with screaming, are considered part of a normal developmental stage during the toddler years, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, when your toddler’s screaming crosses the line, it may signify an underlying problem as common as an ear infection or as complicated as sensory processing disorder.
Your toddler’s screams can make you wonder why he didn’t come with a pair of earplugs! If your toddler begins screaming in a manner that is abnormal for him, don’t panic. Rule out the common causes of toddler screaming such as sickness or fatigue. If your toddler’s screaming is high-pitched or sharp, it may indicate that he is in pain. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that younger children may cry due to ear aches, sore throats and constipation. All of these may be difficult to identify initially, especially if your toddler isn't having any other symptoms.
When you’re dealing with abnormal screaming unrelated to the common factors, you may feel like your toddler has now hit the big leagues. You can determine the difference between normal toddler screaming and abnormal screaming by the duration, intensity, frequency and ability of your toddler to recover from a screaming episode. Research by Dr. Andy Belden, Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, notes that the average toddler tantrum lasts for three minutes but can even last up to five minutes and occur once-a-day. Afterward, your toddler should be able to calm down and move on to other activities. Dr. Belden further notes that abnormal toddler screaming lasts for more than 25 minutes and may occur more than five times a day on multiple days. It is sometimes coupled with aggressive or self-harming behaviors from your toddler such as hitting, biting, or banging his head on the wall. Additionally, your toddler may need a lot of help from you to calm down and move on to other activities.
While most screaming can be related back to the common factors, abnormal screaming can have less obvious causes. Dr. Belden conducted research showing that preschoolers with depression or disruptive disorders were more likely to have abnormal tantrums. Dr. Son of the University of Washington notes that depression occurs in one out of every 100 preschoolers. Frequent or long temper tantrums are also red flags for a sensory processing disorder. According to The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation, this condition affects the daily lives of approximately one in 20 children. Additionally, KidsHealth reports that hearing problems, vision problems, language delays or learning disabilities may sometimes contribute to tantrums.
When your toddler screams, stay calm! This is especially important if you are dealing with repeated abnormal screaming. Make sure your toddler is getting sufficient sleep. Take your toddler to his pediatrician if you feel that he is in pain or getting sick. If you have ruled out the common causes of toddler screaming, you may have to play detective to get to the bottom of the case. Note the times and circumstances that surround your toddler’s screaming and pay attention to any patterns or triggers. Share these with your toddler’s pediatrician. If he feels that further help is needed, he may refer you to a specialist such as a developmental pediatrician.