My daughter is 6 and has always been kind of…a prickly pear, I guess. She behaves fantastically at school (she frequently receives awards for good behavior and her teacher raves about her) and has a very sweet, thoughtful nature underneath the lashing out. The problem however, is that no discipline ever fazes her. She screams the second she doesn’t like something at home. I try to explain why this is not okay and she claims she doesn’t understand what she’s doing wrong. I am exhausted from this happening several times a week and desperate for a solution. Any ideas?

This sounds like a really frustrating situation – it can be very upsetting when your child is screaming and won’t listen to you. And it is quite common for kids to act one way at school and another way at home because they feel like the can unleash their feelings with their parents. The good news is that there are a couple things you can do to help your situation.

Young kids have fewer ways of identifying and coping with their emotions. One of their most common methods of coping is throwing a tantrum or screaming. A good starting place is to teach her to recognize her emotions and learn better ways of coping and better expressing herself. Trying to teach or reason with children when they are screaming probably won’t get you very far and may even make the screaming worse. Instead, think about ways to label and validate emotions and teach coping skills during moments when she is calm. You can use emotions that she’s having, you’re having or even other people are having. For example, you can say “Mommy is so frustrated right now because we’re sitting in traffic. I’m going to take three deep breaths to help calm me down. I like to pretend I’m blowing out birthday candles when I take deep breaths.” This should help your daughter to strengthen her “emotion vocabulary” and practice coping strategies when she is calmer.

Another strategy is to use something called “differential attention” – giving more attention to the behaviors you like and less attention to problematic or annoying behaviors that are not dangerous. In other words, ignore your daughter when she’s screaming and praise her when she’s staying calm. Be sure to be specific, positive and immediate with your praise. For example, saying “nice job staying calm and using your polite voice!” will help her learn faster than saying “nice job!” or “thanks for not screaming.” Just remember, when you use this method and start to ignore a behavior, it’s important to stick with it and ride it out. Oftentimes, the bad behavior gets worse before it gets better. But it should get better! If you’re still finding things challenging, talking to your child’s pediatrician can be a helpful next step.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leandra GodoyLeandra Godoy, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in early childhood mental health.

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