Dear Bracha,

In the past month, my 10-month-old son has started screaming every time he is the least bit frustrated. I understand that children are often looking for attention (negative or positive), so I try to ignore him while he's doing this. However, I do feel bad as he has no other means to communicate yet. How should I handle this situation?

Worried Mother

Dear Worried Mother,

Our sages talk about a sapling that is growing crooked. If the sapling is tended to while still young, and assisted to grow properly, the result will usually be a straight and tall tree. However, if the sapling is allowed to continue growing crooked, and efforts are only made at a later date to correct the situation, it is usually not effective. The trunk of the tree is no longer pliable. So, too, with young children; if they're allowed to develop poor habits of behavior when young, these habits will become the norm and may swallow up their good natures. The sooner poor behavior is corrected, the happier everyone will be.

What we have here is screaming (or crying or whiny noises of discontent) while mom goes through the 20,000 question game to find out what Johnny wants. Do you want a toy, do you want a cookie, do you want a drink…do you want me to play with you… – that's it!!!

Your son has gotten you to play with him, and whatever he wanted, if indeed he wanted anything, is beside the point. His main goal is to keep you engaged and focused on him and, as you can see, he's very successful.

Your analysis of the situation was correct, but not its conclusion. Your child's frustration is not because of things he cannot tell you, but because he has learned by observation that this "act" – which is all it is, an act – of frustration will keep you engaged. All he wants is: "Mommy, play with me. Mommy, pay attention to me."

Attention is about talking, touch and eye contact. Take it away during poor behavior, add to it during good behavior. Be very deliberate in your use of this technique since your son's difficult behavior can become personality traits if not nipped in the bud early. A child who gets results from showing frustration is a child who will not try to control himself because, by driving mother crazy, she will let the child have anything he wants just to get him off her back.

All of these are examples of children in control of the interaction. But you are part of this interaction; you can leave your son in control and react to whatever he is doing, or take control by controlling your response.

I usually get this question from parents whose children are older than yours, a bit over the age of one is average. So, off the bat, even though your child's behavior is normal, he is very precocious to start so early. So I assume you have a very smart child on your hands. The pre-verbal child is a little trickier than post-verbal, but the younger the child, the more important it is to address the behavior, as it has more profound personality-shaping consequences.

Remove attention from him when he is showing poor behavior. Give him a short instructional phrase to guide him towards expected behavior, five words if possible; don't make eye contact with him when you say it – look over his head. Assuming this causes him to pause for even 60 seconds, you can then move on to positive attention by engaging him on your terms.

For example: your son is getting that frustrated look and "noisily" seems to indicate he wants something, perhaps a toy. Your response: "Johnny, I can't help you unless you carefully point to it." You say this while looking above his head and then turn your back to him. He sits puzzled, figuring out his next move, but he has been quiet for 60 seconds (or less at a younger age). Scoop him up saying, "Wow, that was good! I see you're thinking about things. Why don't we read a book for a little while?" You could play a game or take him into the kitchen while you prepare dinner, talking to him and making strong eye contact as frequently as possible.

What have you accomplished? You have separated his negative behavior from producing positive results. You have shown appreciation and positive interaction in response to his ability to "control" himself and follow instructions.

Children have a real need to receive attention from their parents. This need must be met. But it's up to you as to how you are going to do it. If you are going to be interacting with him anyway, why not maintain control of the situation and give him attention in a positive way?

Wishing you and your family all the best,