toy robots lined up on window sill


Just the other day I saw a little boy, maybe five years old, standing next to his grandmother while she chatted with a neighbor. And he was screaming “Arrrgghhh!” over and over at the top of his lungs to everyone, anyone—the kids playing in the parking lot, other neighbors. The grandmother didn’t do anything or say anything to her grandson. She just keep talking to her neighbor and ignoring the boy as best she could.

That little boy seemed miserable. I found it a sad scene to witness. After a few minutes he tried to hide his head between his grandmother’s legs. I can’t blame him for wanting to disappear. How good could it feel to scream at the world, and have no one respond?

I started to think about what the boy might have wanted or needed at that moment. And then I wondered, if I could have gone over to him, what would I have said to try to help him?

I think I would have wanted to walk over to the boy, sit down on the curb a few feet away from him, and ask if I could scream along with him. He’d probably have stared at me and not said anything, and that would have been just fine. And then I’d have screamed “Arrrgghhh!” too, although a lot more quietly and to no one in particular. I certainly wouldn’t scream at the boy. I’d scream at the tree or into the air over my head, or maybe at the grass. And if he screamed some more I’d try to match the timing of his screams and then, ever so gradually, slow the whole thing down. In between our subdued screams, I’d have said things like, “Sure wish people would understand my screams…” and “Sure wish someone would ask me what I’m screaming about…” and “Sure wish I could stop my screaming and still have everyone know how I feel…” And once the screaming went away altogether, I’d say something like, “Sometimes I don’t even know why I’m screaming. I just feel like it. Does that ever happen to you?” And maybe the boy would have nodded his head. And I’d have said, “Yeah. Sometimes I just don’t know why. And sometimes I do. But even when I do, I can’t get grown ups to understand me, and then I just feel like screaming even more!”

I would have loved to have had that interaction with this boy, if only to let him know that he wasn’t invisible and that his feelings did matter. I would have loved to have had the chance to model the behavior for the grandmother and anyone else who might have watched with curiosity, because parents and caregivers don’t often know what to do in such situations, and need new ideas. Where would they have learned anything but what they saw their parents do, or their friends do, or the people on their favorite TV shows do? Those aren’t always the best teachers.

Parents and caregivers get stumped when their kids behave in ways that don’t make sense to them or that they can’t control. When the behavior is both of those things, it can make them very frustrated or, more commonly, very angry. So they respond in kind, with behavior that the child doesn’t understand and certainly can’t control. And nothing is understood about what each is trying to say to the other, and nothing gets better.

I bet that little boy would love for his grandma or mom or dad to come over to him when he’s screaming like that and just sit down next to him and whisper to him, warmly and slowly, “Hey, buddy, I’m right here. And you can tell me what you’re screaming about any time you want. I’ll be right here and ready to hear it.” But maybe they can’t because they’re tired or think it would be too indulgent, or because it’s the tenth time that day their son has crumpled into tears or risen up against them with screams. I’d be saying something different if I thought the boy had been having a temper tantrum for not getting something he wanted. Giving him that kind of attention would have been too indulgent then. But this boy’s cries had a plaintive quality about them, and his expression was doleful. I think he was more unhappy than he was angry but, as it is for so many children, it’s a lot easier and a lot less heartbreaking to walk around being mad all day than it is to walk around being sad.

— Janet Sasson Edgette