My shrieking twins are driving me mad

twin-girlsQ. My two-year-old twin daughters are in general lovely, happy children but they tend to shriek a lot at high volume at the slightest thing. If one of them takes a tumble for example, even though it’s obvious they are not hurt, the high-pitched squawking starts. Several people who are around children a lot say they have never heard anything like the sound they make.

What makes it worse is that the girl nothing has happened to will, most of the time, start shrieking as well, as though in sympathy or in a bid to get attention. They sometimes hit or pull each other’s hair with similar ear-splitting results. I’ve tried to explain that “Mummy doesn’t understand squeaking and squawking” (crying doesn’t do justice to the noise) and to encourage them to explain what they are feeling but so far this hasn’t worked.

At home, I can just about bear it but in public, when they do their impression of soprano ambulance sirens in stereo, it is starting to drive me mad. Any advice?

A. Frequently toddlers can be overwhelmed by their emotions, which can lead to a tantrum or a bout of whining and whingeing or high-pitched screaming or shrieking as you experience. Often there are specific events which can trigger such “meltdowns” such as a parent saying no or a frustration with toys or a fall, though sometimes it can appear like there is no particular trigger event, and a “meltdown” can happen for almost no reason. Sometimes these incidents occur at a certain time of day or in certain situations when the child is over-tired or over-stimulated or even simply hungry or dehydrated.

Trying to anticipate flashpoints and intervening early can help avoid some of the problems.

When you have twins or two children close in age, you can have the added problem of sympathy crying when one child’s crying triggers the other to start as well and before you know it you have a “double meltdown” to deal with. Often this happens because the other child is genuinely upset by their brother or sister crying or at other times they can be matching the behaviour they see to get their parents’ attention.

In dealing with a bout of shrieking, the important thing is to take a pause yourself so you can think how best to respond. Depending on the situation, different strategies can work. Sometimes it is best to empathise and soothe, saying something such as, “I know you’re sad, let Mummy give you a hug”. At other times, distractions can work very well, whereby you use an upbeat voice to direct them to something else, for example, “Come now, let’s play with dolly”.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to pull back and ignore the squawking for a minute, giving you and your daughter time to calm down, and at other times it can be helpful to have a consequence in mind, especially when they might pull each other’s hair, for example, “You have to sit apart until you play like friends” or “Ssh, when you’re quiet you can get your toy back.” The key is to get through a difficult outburst with the minimum of upset for you and them.

To avoid sympathy crying, it is a good idea to continue to attend to the non-crying child when one starts an outburst. You can do this by continuing to talk to them and include them positively. For example, it can be helpful to explain whatever discipline strategy you are using – “Your sister is upset, and Mummy is giving her a hug to help her calm down” or “Your sister is upset, and when she is quiet she can come back and play the game.”

This helps her feel reassured about what is happening for her sister as well as continuing to get your attention. It shows her how to deal with her own outbursts and gives the important message that throwing a tantrum doesn’t mean she get mummy’s attention exclusively.

Whatever about dealing with a toddler “meltdown” in your own home, it is a much more stressful event when you are in public. The attention of an outside audience and sometimes their judgment and even their interference can make matters worse and stop you from dealing with things appropriately. Sometimes the children even sense this and this can cause the tantrum to escalate.

While some professionals suggest that you should simply ignore all this unhelpful attention and act as if you were at home, I think this is very hard to do. As a result, I often suggest to parents that they might have separate plans for public outbursts that might involve having an extra special distraction they can use (such as a soother or a special toy) that they might not always use at home.

Having a couple of fail-safe options such as this can help you to get through a difficult trip. You can make this work well by giving them a choice, “When you calm down now, you can have your toy.”

Over time, it is important to teach them how to appropriately express their emotions and this is often best done by getting in early when you spot a possible conflict. For example, you can give them simple phrases they can use when upset such as “I’m hurt Mummy” or “I’m tired, can I have a hug” etc. In addition, you can go out of your way to praise any time they show examples of managing emotions – “Good girl, you asked Mummy for help” or “You were tired and asked Daddy for a hug, so now you get an extra special hug”, etc.

It takes a lot of time for young children to learn to understand and express their emotions appropriately and this requires a great deal of patience on the part of their parents.

The good news is that as your girls become older it should become easier to manage their outbursts. Verbally they will be better able to understand your explanations and instructions, and they will be more able to make choices and to respond to rewards.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, May 2011.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.