Monday, September 13, 2010

What makes me lose it: the screeching

Max is a pretty happy kid, as you might glean from his ever-present smile. But lately, he has been screeching when he gets upset. And I mean loud, high-pitched, ear-splitting screeches that can go on and on for a stretch of 10 to 15 minutes.

The screeching isn't just unnerving, it makes me upset.

It shoots right through my body, tensing up my neck and shoulders and making my heart beat faster and my head throb.

It leaves me freaked for a while after it ends, too.

At its most intense, the screeching makes ME want to screech right back at Max. And I recently did in the car. I lost it.

"MAX, STOP YELLING!!!" I yelled, after Max had been screeching for 10 minutes straight, over what, I can't recall.

Dave, who hardy ever gets mad, glared at me. "Go blog about how you yelled at Max," he said. Meaning: That was a really crappy thing to do and your punishment is everyone should know about it and maybe tar and feathers would also be appropriate.

And so here I am. Not because I am "outing" myself, but because I need to vent. Max's screeching is something I am having a really, really hard time handling.

It happened a few times this past weekend. First, we were waiting in a cavernous apartment lobby for friends, and Max wanted to wheel around one of those luggage carts. The doorman said no. SCREECH SCREECH SCREECH SCREEECH, echoing off the walls. Torture for all of us. Dave finally took Max outside.

Then we went to visit The Bronx Zoo. Max was most charmed by a monorail ride through "Asia" (spotted: a tiger, elephants, rhinos, monkeys, ponies, and lots more) and a tram ride that shuttled guests between parking lots. We were really psyched when Max ventured inside JungleWorld, as he usually can't stand indoor exhibitions and this one was a great one complete with gibbons, otters, tree kangaroos, tremendous turtles, waterfalls and other natural wonders. Then we went to the Congo Gorilla Forest. The viewing room was large and echo-y and Max started screeching. I tried distraction; at one point, there were two little gorilla brothers fighting and I said "Look! Max and Sabrina!" The ape siblings caught his attention for all of 10 seconds before the screeching began again. We booked out of there.

A lot of moms have things that get to them. A few months ago, the awesome Jean at Stimeyland wrote about her son's habit of snorting. Her words rang true: "It is maybe the worst thing I have ever heard. It actually causes me some pretty intense physical discomfort. I feel it all across my shoulders and down through my chest." Catherine at Her Bad Mother has raged against her little girl's whining. Obviously, I am not alone in being driven nuts by a child's grating habit. I just don't know what to do.

Wait, it gets worst. Sabrina has started screaming when she's upset. She sometimes does stuff Max does, and this is her latest charming copycat behavior. She doesn't scream words, just lets out a big "AAAAAAAAAAAH!" She's doing it for attention; Max is doing it because it's become his go-to behavior when he's out of his comfort zone. Max doesn't screech at school. He doesn't do this with his therapists. He doesn't do this when he's with friends. He does it only with Dave and me when he is wigged out or not getting his way.

Calmly repeating "Max, please don't yell" doesn't work (and, in fact, makes him screech louder). Trying to get him to communicate his feelings by iPad in the heat of the moment most definitely doesn't work. Someone I know said that we should learn to ignore it; if we don't respond to the behavior, Max will realize he's not getting a reaction and quit. But ignoring it just isn't realistic in public spaces. I'm guessing another possibility is that we need to teach him to replace this behavior with another; I'm just not sure what.

As the saying goes, ARRRRRRRRRRRGH.


  1. Jacob does this. AND I have actually been to therapy about it. I honestly FREAK OUT when he does it. Makes me want to throw up and everything!

    Who would have ever thought something your child did would be so revolting to you?

  2. I've just been confessing my sins as a bad parent on my blog, sometimes I shout, I know I shouldn't, but it happens.

    Dimitri is a world class screamer, it happens when we are out or Dimitri doesn't get his way at home. It doesn't happen at school - which his teachers seem to enjoy telling me. These kinds of behaviours seem to become habit straight away, it's really frustrating. No advice, every child is different and I'm sure you'll find a solution.

  3. My older, non special needs child makes me lose it more with the whining, while the child with greater needs is only two, so the fuss is less efective. But boy have I been making her angry by treating her like I expect normal manners/behavior. She was hitting her dad and he said "use Righty!" and I said NO, don't hit people. I think the screeching would actually do my head in. But from my four year old? The whining? And harrumphing? And stamping off saying "well, I don't care" is probably a sign that I will lose it with that child altogether.

  4. this sounds soo familiar. Ashley has screaming fits like this. It took a while for us to figure out that, with him, ignoring him actually worked. We learned this with the older girls fairly early on but had to see through Ashley being disabled. It was like a blinding revelation and was really hard because like you the screaming affected us so much. I hope you get to the bottom of this one and remember you're not alone. x

  5. I know all about this--it's horrible isn't it? I do a combo of removal, ignoring, and sometimes putting earphones attached to my old portable CD player with his favorite tunes on his head as a diversionary tactic.

    I'll tell you, I get a feeling of dread and something that is almost like HATE, or INTENSE anger, and then I feel like shit for it. It's a coping mechanism, and nothing personal, I just have to remember that. Easier said than done.

  6. oh yes, T-man wails when he is angry and it can be quite unnerving. so I get what you are talking about.

  7. We don't deal with screaming...yet. There is one habit that makes me completely nuts though. My daughter grinds her teeth. She doesn't do it while she is sleeping, she does it while she is awake. And it goes right through me! My husband can completely ignore it, but I can think of very few worse sounds. It sounds like she has a mouth full of rocks. It puts me on edge instantly.

  8. I've got no kids but may I suggest earplugs? At least when you're at home, not in public places. With a few decibels off, you might be able to ignore him properly and wait until he's tired of screeching...
    Have a nice day!

  9. Oh God, that would drive me insane and I'd be the first to admit I would probably yell too. I cannot handle screaming of any sort; it drives me absolutely insane. Ugh momma, sorry you're dealing with this.

  10. Don't you feel bad, missy!! We all have our limits. You are an awesome mother!!

  11. I think you are an awesome mom!

    You say something that seems contradictory in your post - first you way the screeching is Max's go-to behavior for being out of his comfort zone, then you note that he only does this with you and your husband. It can't be coincidence that the only time he is ever "out of his comfort zone" is when he is with the two of you.

    Honestly, sounds a lot like typical 6 year old rebellion to me. I speak from experience because I am living it right now with my "neuro-typical" six year old. She has taken to shrieking at the top of her lungs when she doesn't get her way about something (which is then followed by flouncing off to her room and slamming the door...) No amount of reasoning helps - although for her taking away a privilage as a result seems to be prety effective. Around the age of 6/7 kids are really wanting to test the boundries and feel that sense of frustration at not being in control of what is happening to them - it is almost a revist of the "terrible two's" in a way.

    I think the key will be figuring out how to help him "turn it off." What works for some kids doesn't work for others, so it is a hit and miss solution search.

    Good luck!

  12. Sometimes we all do shit we wish we had not done. Especially when our kids push us to the brink and beyond. As much as we try to 'be water', even water can get gunked up with so much crap our drains get clogged.

    Bennett has screeching fits. It scratches the insides of my eyeballs in a way nothing else does. It's unnerving. It is an amazing feeling. At the very same time it makes me feel intense anger, intense depression and grief, intense anxiety and intense concern over his well-being. As it continues the anger and anxiety tend to win the day.

    There is no easy answer. Last night I proposed a solution to Jen that I may or may not blog about regarding how to express to each other when we can't handle it any more and need to step away. Problem will be what happens if we BOTH are at the same place mentally, though that's rare.

    Sorry kiddo. Don't beat yourself up too badly. You're a great Mom, you do great things for Max and you stumble rarely but you always will and you always own it, which makes you not only human, but beautiful.

  13. I've often wondered over the last few months if the screeching was a CP thing, a 2 year-old thing, or just a Jackson thing. My husband can't handle it to the point where he shuts down completely and leaves the area, and therefore leaves me to deal with it!! Jacks favorite place to screech is at the dinner table, or any other time he's not the center of attention. I know we'll figure a way out of it eventually...and until then we'll muddle through. And yes, there are times I've yelled right back at him completely out of all patience.

    The funniest part daughter was reading this post over my shoulder (she's almost 8) and asked "Did you write this about Jackson mommy?"

  14. Hi Ellen,

    E doesn't do this, but she used to fall all the time and cry incessantly about it. We're better on both fronts, but we've also started seeing a psychologist to try to find new ways of steering behavior. Not sure if that might be something you'd want to try (sure--with all your free time, right?).

    I do have an important question. Not only to the SN community, but for those regular folks.

    When your child is shrieking, or screaming, or having some sort of (longer than your typical) outburst, what would be the ideal response to this from the people around you?

    I want to know, b/c I want to be that person you make eye contact with that doesn't make you cringe. Ideally, I want to be that person who makes you feel like you don't need to high-tail it out of the area.

  15. Hi Ellen,

    I have NEVER behaved like you (NOT!).

    It sounds like Max is using this behavor to get what he wants because it works. Very classic for kids who have a hard time with communication -- find something that works and keep using it. Happens with my Luke alot (he is completely non-verbal)

    The key is changing his behavior -- teaching him how to let you know that he needs to leave an area. The theroy is to reward appropriate behavior and ignore the unacceptable. (How do you ignore screeching!?)

    You might see if there is a behavior specialist in your school district who can help you. Otherwise, here is my unprofessional way to go about it.

    Write a social story for Max -- a short little story that will say things like "Sometimes when I am at place it gets to loud and my ears hurt. When then happens I tell mommy and daddy by squeezing their hand very hard. Then they know I need to leave"

    Then you need to figure out what a really good reward is for appropriate behavior. Food? Toy? Needs to be very immediate. Give it often. You can fade over time.

    This is HARD to do, but very worth it in the end. More than likely his behavior will escalate in the beginning to really see if you are going to ignore the screeching. Once he learns that you won't give in (the hard part!) then he will stop.

    Let me know if you need some help with a social story. I don't mind helping if I can

    jdoll at mail dot win dot org

  16. Amy --

    When my son what having a MAJOR meltdown last weekend at a hotel, I had several folks just say "Can I help" -- it MADE my day. There wasn't anything they could do at the time, but it was enough to know they cared.

    When there are kids who wonder why this other kid is loosing it -- saying something along the lines of "he is having a hard time, but his mom is helping him" is a good explaination.

  17. This is JUST the kind of thing a behavioral therapist is excellent at. Having worked with a few wonderful ABA and BCBA therapists, I heartily encourage you to look into bringing one in for a consultation. What I find most valuable is the fact that they come to you (rather than asking you to bring him into an office), because home is where the behaviors happen.

    A good behaviorist will take data: come and observe, especially during "pinch points," and write down what's triggering the behavior you want to work on. It's hugely important to know WHEN and WHY it happens, and you already have an inkling as to that. Getting concrete information from a behaviorist goes one step further: it gives you the tools to substitute the inappropriate behavior you don't want to see with appropriate behavior. You know that Max has more appropriate tools for communication in his arsenal; for reasons that a professional will help you discover, he's not using them in the situations you describe. Behavioral therapy of this kind is especially useful for children with communication difficulties.

    What's great about a good BCBA is that they can work just as well with an NT child, giving you strategies for Sabrina's behavior as well. I constantly bug our BCBA for tips and tools for my typical child.

    I think this could really help! Happy to email you if you need more info.

  18. Don't be too hard on yourself! Honestly, screaming is such a human reaction in this situation. Every parent loses it at least occasionally. Kids know exactly which buttons to push, it can be really infuriating. It doesn't matter if they are special needs or not.

    People are giving you great advice in the thread. The only advice I can add is for you to forgive yourself and let it go. You are a great mom! It's okay to have a bad moment.

  19. This blog post kind of ticked me off, but not for the reason you'd expect. I'm kind of upset at your HUSBAND!! He made you feel WORSE for losing your temper, instead of offering help - and then tried to punish you by telling you to put it on your blog! I'm just happy to see that all of the comments here have been supportive and empathetic (Hmph! Take THAT, Ellen's Husband!! IT DIDN'T WORK. WE STILL THINK ELLEN IS AN AWESOME MOM). Parents need to be a team when dealing with the tough stuff, not pick on each other. If Max figures out that he has that power over the two of you, he'll never stop.

    That being said: I've been reading your blog long enough to know that you have a wonderful husband. I just wish he'd been more supportive of you when you really needed him.

  20. Wade does the exact same thing, and it drives me over the edge. He screeches at every.single.stoplight too! So, on the way home today, my husband got out his phone and video taped him screaming, then showed it to him. It was interesting seeing the look on his face as he watched himself. I hope to use it to show him behaviors we don't like, and maybe it will get through.

  21. Thanks, everyone, for empathizing, and for sharing some revelatory ideas. Sarah and Janet, I think I will go ahead and book a session with a behaviorist, what's another expert in Max's life?! I am not sure he will "get" the short story you recommend, Janet, but it's worth a try.

    Jennifer, I really like your idea of taping Max screaming and showing it to him. It could help him to understand how unpleasant the sound is.

    Aurelie, ear plugs for us are a good idea, but I can't afford to give them to everyone at the restaurant/zoo/mall etc. :) I just hate dealing with the disgusted stares. And Amy, what I would love for people to do is NOT stare disgustedly. The problem is, I think they figure Max is just an uber-brat, not a kid with special needs.

    Jana: Years ago, Max's neurologist told me that children with cp sometimes have a high-pitched scream. Hmmmm.... I am putting this on my long list of stuff to ask him about.

    Trixie: What I meant with Max being "out of his comfort zone" is that, even with the comfort of me and Dave nearby, the sensory issues when he goes to new places mage him wig. But he used to just cry, now he's screeching.

    And Julia? I love how you're sticking up for me. I think there's some underlying meaning of Dave's remark that I didn't really explain, which is, he thinks I spend too much time blogging—and I think that sentiment was part of his remark. He gets so sensitive about the kids, he's just a big marshmallow. A chicken-wing filled marshmallow.

  22. Hi, Ellen. I didn't do a very good job of saying what I was trying to say apparently. I am sorry.

    The point I was (poorly) trying to get at was that kids often bless thier parents with thier most "special" behavior. For some reason, they sometimes handle similar situations differently with other caregivers.

    Anyway, sorry if I sounded high-handed. I know you will find a solution/approach that works for Max.

  23. YES.

    Leo flaps. When's he's excited. And happy. And while I'm thrilled that he's happy and excited and that he so clearly enjoys his life, I HATE the flapping. It just, well, to me it screams the "R" word. I know, how Un-PC of me to say, but it's what I picture other people (strangers) thinking when they see him in all his jubilant, flapping, glory.

    I just ignore it and it never goes on for more than 15-20 seconds, but when it does go on a little too long, I do my best to "redirect" him (groan). Sometimes I just want to hide under a rock though.

    But at least he's happy, right?

  24. Charlie has some terrible whining. Doesn't bother my husband at all, but it causes me to have a physical reaction. It's like it's making my nerves tingle on the inside. I will do ANYTHING to keep away the whining and often snap at my husband if he's ignoring it.

  25. You have ALL of my sympathy. I know how horrible it is to really hate something your child is doing and then feel the guilt on top of it if you've yelled. Add to that people staring at your child or having to change your plans because of the behavior, and I can only imagine how tense it must make you.

    With Jack and the snorting, we ended up trying to ignore it and it has decreased immensely. It's still around, but soooo manageable.

    I wish I had good advice for you, but the loudness and public nature of the screeching does add a whole other element. What I do have for you are good thoughts and some virtual hugs. If you ever need to vent, let me know. Because I really, really do understand.

  26. Wow. I needed this post and all the comments right now. Now, if all of you people would be on the same block as us when my almost 3 y.o. daughter with SN shrieks her head off, that'd be great! No one around understands. People comment idiotic things, like, "Chill," "Relax," "High-pitched scream from hell," and my favorite, "Oh my God! Is everything okay?!" No, I'm just strolling along while my child is in midst of a medical emergency. Good thing you thought to ask.

    Changes in routine set her off, like going into stores (unless she knows we can get a snack there, then she tolerates it), turning back the way we came from, waking up from her stroller nap in an unfamiliar place, not procuring the exact type of food she requests within three seconds.

    I know ignoring works best. We do it at home. We do it in the street. But at an indoor area, no way.
    People expect me to hold her (makes screaming worse), give her a candy (thanks for screaming! Here's a candy as a reward), etc.

    Her screaming bothers me, but not as much as other people's reactions! UGH!

    I hate to admit I used to think screaming kids are just brats. Now I smile sympathetically at mothers with uncontrollable kids, and pray others don't judge me as harshly as I used to judge others before I had kids!

  27. Oh man, my son & his screaming. He's Autistic & I don't know if the screaming is part of it, but he went from a whining phase that drove my brain to mush & now it's screaming instead. The other day it was so bad that I broke down & cried multiple times b/c my nerves were so shot. I walked in the door after work & wanted to walk back out again b/c of the screaming. My husband handles whining & screaming so well - but it does something to me, physically, mentally, that it takes everything for me not to lose it. And on those times when I scream back b/c I have lost it just make me feel worse & then I'm crying again. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only person who struggles with this.

  28. Sometimes I forget to do my math homework.


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