Don’t Fear the Frustration

Janet, thank you again so much for answering my questions and for your wonderful articles. We have made huge progress and are so much calmer and happier in just a few days of changes.

Here is my next question: I’m trying to get this right, and observing my baby carefully really does help to figure out what he’s crying about. But I’m unsure how to handle his cries after he trips or loses balance.

The environment he plays in is safe, but I wonder sometimes if he’s crying more out of being scared, or frustrated, than actual pain.

I started doing this… I will go right up to him kneel down and rub his back and say “I’m sorry you fell, can I help you?” I pull out my arms and let him climb up to me. He usually pushes me away and goes on his way, but crying still. On one occasion he climbed up on me and rested a minute then resolved and went on.

I feel awkward; I don’t know what I should be doing. What I used to do before is pick him up, give him some water and show him his favorite book. I now feel like it wasn’t helping him cope or grow from the experience.

I’m not good at listening to crying. I usually know what he wants, that he’s scared or tired, or hungry. I’ve been really good about it, but to hear his displeasure is just not comfortable for me, especially when he’s just frustrated and struggling to learn.

He has been a powerhouse of milestones these past few days, he crawled out of nowhere, learned to sit up from laying down, took his first steps, ran straight to the front door!

It would be great if you can give some scenarios of infants tripping falling and crying, and how it’s handled exactly, what to say and do?

How about just frustration, crying about a toy being too far, and frustration trying to figure out how to get there? My son is so angry that he can’t walk he will literally stand somewhere, hang on with a few fingers and scream that he’s scared to let go, and that I should come and be his walker. So what I’ve been doing is sitting down and saying, “Noah, try to sit on the floor and crawl to it.” His bottom will go up and down a few times while he’s deciding and then he’ll sit and actually crawl to it. I’m not sure if this is right, I don’t know if this is interfering too much? Can I give suggestions how to ease his discomfort?

Like when he’s teething, and frustrated, can I suggest he try to find a toy to use? Can I suggest he look one way or another? Or should I just let him be frustrated and cry and figure out on his own?

I have been doing a combination, but I am really convinced that his frustration has led to major development, and I’m truly amazed. But it’s hard to listen to the displeasure and frustration. Should I even be talking and when should I be talking?

Shana, what you are doing here sounds perfect: “I will go right up to him kneel down and rub his back and say ‘I’m sorry you fell, can I help you?’ I pull out my arms and let him climb up to me.”

You are acknowledging him and giving him the opportunity to let you know what he needs, but also allowing him to have his feelings. Feelings do not always make sense, or even seem appropriate… they are just feelings. And, yes, they can be the hardest things for moms and dads to hear, but it is such a gift to let your boy have his feelings, to cry as he needs to without trying to fix him, distract him, or otherwise take the feelings away.

Pat yourself on the back for allowing him to cry when he needs to, no matter the reason. Calm yourself when he cries and find the patience to let him express his feelings until they pass completely. Support him to have all his feelings. Then he doesn’t have to stuff any of his emotions for therapists to unravel later.

Example: Your baby is taking steps, trips and falls. Wait to see his reaction before doing anything. Often, babies get right up and go on if we don’t react. If he cries, go close to him (no rush), kneel and say calmly, “You tripped on that block and fell. I saw what happened.” Help him understand what occurred. (If you do this he’ll soon start pointing to the ground and going over each incident afterwards. Infants and toddlers take an interest in everything that happens and are eager to learn and understand.) If he keeps crying, reach out and ask if he wants you to hold him. Take your cues from him.

“My son is so angry that he can’t walk he will literally stand somewhere hang on with a few fingers and scream that he’s scared to let go, and that I should come and be his walker. So what I’ve been doing is sitting down, saying, ‘Noah, try to sit on the floor and crawl to it.’”

You are right to not “be his walker” — that only gives him a false sense of balance, creates a dependency and can be dangerous (when he thinks he can do things he can’t). Acknowledge his frustration, but don’t assume his intention. Sometimes we project what we think a child is doing, and we’re wrong.

“I hear you. Were you moving to that toy? Do you feel stuck? Can you get back down yourself? I won’t let you fall.” (All spoken slowly.) Then ‘spot’ him so he doesn’t fall. If he still seems stuck, give a little more instruction… “Try bending your knees. Can you let go of the shelf? I won’t let you fall.” The idea is to let him solve the problems as much as he possibly can. It takes more patience than handing him the toy but has big pay-offs — a child who is tenacious, feels capable and self-confident.

Don’t distract. Ever. We want to encourage children to be attentive, engaged, present. And we want to have a relationship based on honesty and trust.

If he’s teething, offer him not one, but two teethers so he can still be the initiator and choose. “Would you like one of these for your mouth?”

You are so right about frustration leading to development. And imagine how great it is for him to learn from you that frustration is just a part of life — it is not to be feared or fixed. As infant specialist Magda Gerber always said, “If we can learn to struggle, we can learn to live.”



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you Janet. What a great topic!!! What about tired toddlers? Just today, my 2 1/2 year old refused to take a nap – something she’s never done before. She wasn’t crying or upset. Just singing, playing with her blanket, etc. After 1.5 hours of trying (I’m a bit dogmatic about naps), we decided to move on with the day. Sure enough, within 10 minutes, tantrum begins. She is laying on the floor, crying “mommy, I need you”, while kicking her legs. I knew that no amount of observation, or letting her cry out would help. She was beyond exhausted. I picked her up and said “we’re going to nap now”, and she did just that successfully. So is there anything else I could do to prevent the physiologically tired response of a tantrum? Sometimes she is the one who says “nap now”, but that is generally before her naptime, and not almost 2 hours after it.

    1. Monika, thanks for sharing this! There are times when it is best to let children lead (like play time, motor development, etc.) and other times when parents should lead (diaper changes, rules about eating, bedtime routines, getting in a car seat, etc.) I think it’s wonderful (and very telling) that you “picked her up and said “we’re going to nap now”, and she did just that successfully“. Our children need to know that we’re in charge of those things. They want us to insist they take naps, etc., but would never tell us as much. In fact, they will usually complain, even have a tantrum. And, generally, I don’t think we are capable of preventing tantrums… Your response was perfect.:-) Janet

  2. Janet,

    I so appreciate the message of listening to your baby — not assuming what she wants. I also love the message of patiently waiting – despite cries and protests – to find the right direction for baby.

    But I’m struggling with where you, as an RIE expert, draws the line about baby’s frustration. How does a parent know when to step in, and when to allow frustration? What does RIE say about that? Frustration is one thing — total meltdown due to being “overdone” — too tired, too frustrated, attempting skills that are too advanced — is another. I worry that parents may push their babies to tolerate more than they are developmentally (or tempermentally) capable of handling, as these things vary from child to child, and from day to day.

    My second question has to do with your advice to “never distract”. In my experience, that is aspirational, but not realistic — especially with multiple small children in the house. Parents’ needs must be taken into account, as well. When dealing with a fussy baby who has been up all night, AND there is a crabby preschooler who needs attention, PLUS dinner to make etc etc, sometimes it’s just good for a parent’s well-being to put on the TV — or some other distraction — for a much-needed break.

    I just may be struck down by a bolt of lightning, but sometimes vegging out in front of the TV, with Little Bear on(or Phineas and Ferb, if there are older kids in the house and you need a laugh) is just what’s needed to give US a break — which then is better for everyone in the family, ultimately 🙂

    The infant development research tells us that we don’t need to “get it right” 100% of the time to end up with a perfectly well-functioning, happy, smart child. In fact, we usually “get it right” about half of the time — and that’s “Good Enough”. While I certainly want parents to aim for “the best”, I also want them to factor their own needs into the equation.


    1. Heather,

      First, I want to thank you for asking these questions and opening up a dialogue about your concerns and disagreements.

      Next, I’m not so comfortable with the word ‘expert’, but in terms of the RIE philosophy, of course there are limits to the amount of frustration a parent would allow before intervening. A tired baby needs to be taken to bed; a hungry baby needs to be fed; a teething baby needs to be offered comfort. A child who wants comfort for any reason is hopefully welcomed by a parent or caregiver with open arms. This is about responding to cues and allowing a baby to tell and show you what he is capable of doing. There is no “pushing” here at all, ever.

      In my experience, babies do not try things that are “too advanced”. They try things that are just beyond their current abilities. That’s how they grow and develop. When they are trying new skills, they often tire quickly and need a break, but that doesn’t mean I would suddenly show them how to do the skill, hold their hands and walk them, for example. I would respond to a need for rest by encouraging the child to take a break and rest.

      By “never distract” I mean to aim for an honest relationship. That means, not saying, “look over here!” when a child is getting a shot, but rather, saying, “This might hurt.” It means dealing with the actual experience at hand, and acknowledging feelings, rather than talking a baby out of them. It means saying, “Wow, you fell hard and you’re upset”, rather than, “Don’t cry! Here, catch the ball!” It doesn’t mean you are not ever going to resort to giving passive entertainment, like TV (especially with four children, don’t know how you do it!) for sanity’s sake. Hopefully, that’s the exception, but you would still acknowledge the fussy baby and crabby preschooler. You would let them know that you hear them and try to understand how they feel.

      It is so easy for parents to wave magic wands of distraction and fix everything, but that only teaches our children that adults are magical and they are powerless.

      I agree that a parent’s needs are HUGELY important in the relationship with a child. But we can take care of our needs honestly with our children if we don’t fear their tears. They are never going to say, “Go ahead to the bathroom Mom, enjoy, take your time”. It has to be OK with us that our children disagree with what we do. We have to do what we have to do and they have a right to their feelings.

      Aloha, back at ya!

  3. Janet,

    I picture us thrown into a baby/toddler playroom together, and I just know that we’d be giving very similar feedback to parents. The message that you’re sending is necessary and unfortunately not heard enough out there in the big world of “PARENTING”.

    It’s probably just a difference of emphasis. One of my driving motivations is relieving the stress and pressure to be “perfect” among so many parents (especially moms) out there today. Many of my readers feel lost in the sea of contradictory advice and worry that something terrible will happen if they don’t get it “just right”.

    What’s important to know about the psychological relationship between parents and babies is that OUR emotions are absorbed much faster than any words, or even actions. So a parent who is more positive, and genuinely authentic, is going to get much farther with her child than a parent who is “doing the right actions” — but feeling stressed, unsure, or somehow “fake”.

    Of course, ideally, the actions WILL be authentic and won’t contradict our feelings. But “ideal” is a hit or miss proposition, and I just want to reassure parents that their most authentic efforts WILL pay off in the long-run — even if their actions aren’t necessarily perfect.

    Thanks and have a great weekend! 🙂

    1. Heather,

      I love your concern for parents and share it wholeheartedly… I can totally relate to parents who worry about perfection…we are all so hard on ourselves. And that’s why I was drawn to Magda Gerber’s approach to parenting. Instead of playing to my fears that my child’s upsets were my failures, Magda encouraged me to trust myself and my babies. She gave me permission to be authentic with my children, helped me understand how to develop a relationship based on honesty rather than manipulation.

      Magda’s philosophy altered my views about ‘love’, taught me that love is not just making others happy all the time, it’s allowing them to be unhappy when they need to be. Yes, that’s harder to do than distracting and erasing the feelings, but the end result — a child who feels safe to express feelings and can cope with them — is worth it.

      That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to ever opt for entertainment to keep the peace, but I would always choose music, or stories on CD before resorting to TV for infants and toddlers. TV use can undo a child’s ability to invent play, and it quickly and easily becomes a habit that can hinder healthy brain development.

      I also agree with you that babies absorb all our emotions, which is why it helps to learn our own limits and take care of ourselves before we get upset or resentful. Of course none of us is perfect! But if a mom is asking my advice in terms of the RIE philosophy, which has inspired me and worked so well for my family, I’m going to tell her what I know. It is certainly not something to be followed to the letter and definitely NOT the only way to be a wonderful parent.

      Heather, thank you again for sharing your point of view.

  4. Hi Janet,

    Again, I’m sure we have way more in common than any differences in emphasis we have. I’m just so happy to have found a like-minded early childhood person who has the respect for babies that we share.

    I don’t disagree with anything you say. I guess I also just want to put in my additional thought about differences in temperament — parents need to learn how to read their unique child, what works for each one — since they are all so different — knowing that what is best for one might not be best for another.

    I bring up the issue of TV partially as an extreme example to prove my point — I would never suggest flipping on the tube for the heck of it, but the truth is, SOME kids get “addicted” to TV, and others really could take it or leave it. For others, it can actually be calming — used thoughtfully. I realize that sounds weird and contrary to “science”, but that’s my observation and experience. The kid who craves TV is naturally more visual and prefers the fast-pace stuff on TV. The kid who wanders off after a few minutes of TV would rather do something more interactive, or can’t handle the stimulation. For some kids, it makes them crazy to watch TV. For others, it calms them down.

    So that’s why there are so many conflicting studies reported on development — each child is really their own case study, in many ways. This extends to every aspect of parenting — discipline, potty training, social skills, physical development — all of it. Individual differences.

    So my emphasis is really on helping parents decode each individual child’s temperament, personality, and how to best work with those, given the dynamics and needs of the family. This can vary tremendously from one family to the next — and it all can work great.

    Thanks for the great forum and have a great holiday! Aloha!

    1. Janet, I agree with so much and see the results of this way of being with children. I also believe temperament makes a big difference.
      An article that made a difference for me was “Rethinking Fussy Babies” by Dr Sears, I have shared it with many people. What do you think about this?

  5. Heather, I’m afraid that I cannot agree that there are any positives to using TV, especially with a child less than 3 years old. Exposing very young children to TV is risky at best, and totally unnecessary in my personal experience with 3 kids who have very different temperaments. The “calming effect” of TV is a fallacy… “Mind numbing” is more like it. I understand that parents use TV with under-3’s and even believe it necessary, but I disagree that it improves the lives of parents or their children in the long run.

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