How to Help a Frustrated Child

In this episode: Janet advises a parent who wants to help her easily frustrated two-year-old develop more patience.

Transcript of “How to Help a Frustrated Child”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and in this episode of Unruffled, I’m going to offer a parent some advice regarding helping her easily-frustrated child learn patience.

Here’s the note I received from Iva:

“Dear Janet, I’m grateful to have been referred to your book Elevating Child Care, and I’ve now also read and very much enjoyed the followup, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. When Luca was born, in those first few days of looking into his eyes, I saw a deep understanding that I wasn’t expecting from a baby. I remember saying to my husband that I could almost imagine him just opening his mouth and having a regular conversation with me. Luca just turned two, and I still see that wisdom in his eyes that he expresses in a way that he’s able.

Before becoming a parent, I would observe many children that I thought were not polite and respectful, and often times, just out of control. It’s easy to judge when you’re not a parent, so when Luca was born, I was torn as I didn’t want to raise a kid that ruled the house, but I also didn’t want to force pleasing behaviors that were not genuine. I’m so grateful for your books, which are about raising polite and respectful kids by being the example you want your kids to follow. You gave me a way to apply discipline that allows me to stay connected, but also recognize my own limits and needs.

I do also have a question if you have time at some point. How do you encourage patience? Luca is very bright and for a two-year-old has a big vocabulary. He can sometimes focus for a very long time on his own, flipping through books, playing with his Stickle Bricks, or just talking to and rearranging his cuddly toys. However, both my husband, and I, and his wonderful caregivers at daycare have had conversations about how he can also very quickly become frustrated when he can’t figure something out immediately. Blowing bubbles himself, clipping something together, opening a box. He immediately starts crying, whining even though he has the words to express what’s bothering him, and he often throws the object.

I respond by saying, ‘Luca, you’re frustrated, but some things are hard to figure out. You have to focus, but I can’t let you throw your toys. I’m going to take it away. Next time, let me know if you’re stuck. You can ask me for help.’

At daycare, they encourage waiting and to not be too quick to jump to respond to him. Luca is currently an only child. Although, there is a second on the way. If there’s any better language or behavior I can use to help him foster patience, I would greatly appreciate your input as it would be helpful as we add a new member to the family. With this new arrival, I’m very excited to start using your childcare philosophy from day one.”

Okay, so to help children when they have this, sometimes, this low threshold for frustration, we actually do what I recommend doing in many situations. In fact, if you’ve listened to my other podcasts, you’ll probably notice that there is a thread running through all of them. The most important message I think that we need to keep reminding ourselves of as parents (because it is a huge challenge), and that is just letting the feelings be, just allowing our children to experience what they’re feeling, not trying to fix it, change it, shorten it even, control it in any way. Really just trusting them to have these uncomfortable experiences. Particularly, these age-appropriate uncomfortable experiences.

In this case, when her child is, let’s say, trying to blow the bubbles, and it isn’t working for him, and he flips out, well, first, he starts crying, whining, “I can’t do it.” Rather than say something there, I would really let that be what it is, and then if he throws the thing down … Well, first of all, you’re not going to give him access to unsafe objects that could hurt him if he throws them down, but obviously, you don’t want him throwing stuff.

To me, this is very similar to … Even without the throwing, if he was just expressing the feeling, it’s very similar to a writer who’s frustrated (in the old days when we used to write on paper) and rips the page out of the typewriter, crumbles it up, and throws it into the trashcan. Ugh, getting that frustration out. You know, what happens when we get that frustration out, we open up something. We open up the space again where we can approach it again.

Sometimes, we might let it go and move on to something else, but oftentimes, we clear the feeling, and we let go. “Okay, this is really hard,” we might say to ourselves, and then we give it a minute, and we’ve started again.

Children do this too, but what happens is as parents, we tend to get caught up in it. We get caught up in wanting to teach them how to do this better or fix it for them, or we ride this wave with them, and we want it to stop. It doesn’t feel comfortable to us either.

So it’s important to separate ourselves. These aren’t our feelings  and it’s very safe and positive for our child to experience them.

Now, if we’re frustrated about something and our loved one or a friend says something like, “Well, if you just focus a little harder, if you just try a little more, you’ll get this,” or, “Here, I can help you,”

No, that’s not what I want. I want to do it myself. I really do. I just want you to let me be upset for a minute. That’s all I want.

I think one of the reasons that I’m comfortable working with parents with toddlers is that I very much relate to the way toddlers feel. I got stuck in those years somehow. We won’t get into why. Who knows? But I definitely relate to them.

I think we can all relate because toddlerhood is a time when our hearts are on our sleeves, our feelings are out there and all over the place. It’s very healthy time, actually. So, how annoying is it when you just want to say that you’re frustrated, and people aren’t comfortable, and they want to fix it for you or they tell you you should just do it this way?

That’s a little bit what this mother is doing, so lovingly, and it’s so understandable that she wants to do this, but this is a little bit her concern that she’s bringing in when she says, “Luca, you’re frustrated, but some things are hard to figure out.”

So, you’re frustrated, but you shouldn’t feel frustrated because you should know that some things are just hard to figure out, and that’s just the way life is, so don’t feel what you’re feeling.

I mean, that’s the subtle message here. Again, this mother is very well-intentioned as we all are when we all have this urge. Well, everybody I know, and I certainly do have the urge to say something like that, but what it does is invalidate it. It’s saying to him, “You shouldn’t be frustrated. Some things are just hard to figure out. That’s just the way life is.”

“You have to focus,” she says next, “You have to focus. This is how you can do it better, but I can’t let you throw your toys.”

I wouldn’t say that after he’s already thrown it. He knows he wasn’t supposed to throw the toy. Children learn this the first time they ever tried throwing a toy, so I don’t think he really needs that message. I think I would be ready. If he’s going to throw something else, if he’s still caught up in it, I would be ready at that point to stop him and say, “I see. It looks like you’re about to throw something else. I’m going to have to take that and move it for you.”

Just focus on keeping him safe while 100% accepting his feelings, so I would say something like, “Yeah, that is so hard.” Maybe even the same words that you used without the “but,” so instead of, “But some things are hard to figure out,” “It’s hard to figure that out,” connecting with him where he is in this experience. Joining him right there, “Yeah, it’s hard. This is really hard for you,” but only matching what you’re getting from him.

If he’s whining, “Yeah, I hear you. That’s hard. You’re doing something hard. You’re having a hard time with that.” That’s all you have to say.

I wouldn’t give him instruction. If somebody did that to me, I’d be so annoyed with them. I feel so misunderstood or just invalidated, not understood. He just needs to vent and clear this feeling so that he can move on and achieve what he’s trying to achieve, or get closer to it, or decide to give up.

So don’t fear the feelings. The feelings are healthy.

The rest of what this mother says in the moment is, “Next time, let me know. If you’re stuck, you can ask me for help.” Again, what all of this is saying … No, this isn’t what the mother means at all, but what this is saying to the child is, “It’s not okay for you to whine about this or cry about this. That’s not what you should be doing. You should be asking me for help. You should be …” Reasonable things. That’s very reasonable, “Ask someone for help,” but emotions are not reasonable. They are just impulses. They just pass through us. They just pop out.

At this age, they’re very good at popping out, so that’s a positive thing, so don’t try to make him reasonable about emotions, and we don’t need to teach children patience. They learn this through our modeling. They learn this through the self-control that they develop, their executive function. They learn this mostly by being able to follow their own interests, which sounds like you’re allowing him to do when he flips through the books, when he plays with his bricks, when he’s playing for a very long time on his own. He already has a lot of patience. And patience doesn’t mean, especially at this age or even for me as an adult, it doesn’t mean that we don’t flip out. It means we flip out, and then we go back to it feeling better, feeling calmer, feeling like we released something we needed to release.

That’s still patience. It’s just patience with some feelings around it, some messy feelings that come out. Trust his process. You’ll never go wrong trusting your child’s process, and then if he asks for help, do the most minimal thing. I probably wouldn’t help at all if the child didn’t ask me, but if a child asks, the way I help can sometimes look like I’m just giving moral support.

First of all, I always say yes to help. “Can you help?” “Yes.” I come closer, “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to blow this bubble.” “Oh, wow. Let’s see how you’re doing it. Hmm, maybe you could move that wand a little closer to your mouth.” Letting him try, keeping this very slow, and most importantly, being very calm ourselves, not getting anxious. “Oh, he’s going to explode. Oh, I better help.”

That’s actually how we encourage less patience.

So being calm, being patient, not worrying, allowing them to be in this process, not trying to jump to the finish line.

Then, maybe we notice that he’s more like spit-blowing instead of slow-blowing, the kind that works. So then, maybe there’s something else we can say like, “Maybe if you put your mouth like this,” and showing him, so talking him through it, doing the most minimal thing to allow him to do more. The more he does, the more confidence he has the next time.

We’re still helping. Helping doesn’t mean we do it for him. That’s not helping. Helping means that we trust him, and we are there to support him and pay attention, and again, not to expect or meet a certain outcome.

What we’ll notice if we’re really there with our child and not jumping ahead to try and to make sure that he does the perfect bubble by then, if we’re really staying there, sometimes, we’ll notice that our child actually loses interest, and what’s interesting is the parents in my classes sometimes will notice that parents are staying engaged in the task and the child has already moved on. The child has dropped that and is on to something else. Trust that. Don’t jump ahead of your child and try to get them back into the experience. “Okay. Come on, let’s finish. We didn’t blow the bubble yet. Here, maybe try…” I’ve seen that happen a lot, and I understand that. That’s the parent getting caught up in the goal rather than really just being there to help their child with what the child is interested in doing.

If he puts the wand down and starts going to something else, don’t try to keep him doing this. Let it go. That encourages patience because patience is about enjoying the process. Children naturally do this. They’re very inspiring this way. They don’t go for the gold. They’re very interested in the process of it. We teach them that they have to get the goal or they can’t enjoy the process, and that there’s nothing to enjoy about the process. “It’s only good if you are able to do it correctly.”

Don’t influence your child that way. Encourage them to be process-oriented as they naturally are. It’s a gift. If they can hold on to that throughout life, they’re going to achieve a lot more than somebody that feels they are failing unless they get to the end goal, so that is developing patience.

Oh, and by the way, concerning the addition of the new baby, it’s especially important for you to allow him to express all his feelings. It’s always important because there’s always a reason for the feelings, but there may be extra frustration coming out during these tasks that he’s trying to do because it’s actually feelings of fear around this impending huge change in his life, which is not lost on him. I’m sure he’s heard people talking about it. I’m sure he knows that some big, mysterious, scary thing is going to happen. It’s mysterious enough to us as adults, and we have a frame of reference for it.

So there’s a lot of reason for him to be whining, crying, frustrated, scared. Another reason to always trust the feelings and not try to color them, or correct them, or fix them. Accept it. It’s gold.

I hope this helps. I hope it makes sense, and thanks so much for asking. Don’t forget. We can do this.




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

  1. I love all of this and it makes so much sense when I read it here but in the moment, when my almost 4 year old is feeling all his feelings by throwing or screaming or hitting or name calling I am having a hard time. I know he’s still young but he’s smart and I feel like he’s developing a habit of lashing out when upset. I don’t think that’s a healthy response and I don’t want it to become how he reacts to or processes stress as he gets older. What are good suggestions to help a child express anger frustration or stress?

  2. avatar Anne Marie Niglio says:

    I love this podcast & article on helping frustrated toddlers. I just came across your website from a homeschool fb post. I have 5 kids my youngest is 2 and ironically my hardest child by far. There is a lot of screaming in our house 🙁
    How do I develop better patience & model calm after doing it so poorly so many times?! I just subscribed & hopefully will be inspired. Thanks!

  3. Thank you so much for all you do. We have been so encouraged and found great help in parenting through so much of what you’ve written. I understand the concept above and understand from previous writings the suggestions of “I won’t let you throw that” to curtail throwing things or even them hitting you, but our little guy’s anger comes out at himself and, in his frustration or anger, he will hit or bite himself until he’s in hysterics over it. How would you handle a situation that results in self harm like that? It breaks our heart to see him do that, but we have no idea how to stop it and, in the moment, he doesn’t want any sort of comfort from us or really anything to do with us when he’s in the upset place. It makes me wonder if somehow we’re doing something wrong to make him feel like he has to react that way. Thanks so much again for all of your help and advice.

  4. I would also love some input on the habit of lashing out. I am a caregiver. I fully respect that feeling frustrated or angry is a big feeling to handle. I love the concept of not needing to solve anything, but just allowing the feelings to happen. I’m even learning to do this more as an adult rather than burying emotions. But hitting people or slamming doors or throwing things are not appropriate, so how do I allow the child to be in the moment but also correct these behaviours?

  5. I am a grandmother of a wonderful little 18 month old girl. I am really learning a lot from you as I look after her when parents work . She is a very curious & active child but right now she seems to go from 1 activity to the next very quickly were 2 months ago she would stay with something a lot longer, is this normal in their development. Thank you for your amazing insights.
    Yours truly Lana

    1. Hi Lana – Thank you for your kind words. I recommend that you continue to trust your granddaughter. This is likely a temporary phase of some kind that she will pass through. Could it be that she’s a little unsettled and finding it harder to concentrate at this unusual and tense time in our world? If so, I can definitely relate to her. 🙂 It can also be internal/development shifts that she is experiencing. Again, I would trust and let her do as she does. Take care.

    2. Lana I am experiencing this now with my 18 month old, it is a natural time for a developmental “leap” as described in the book/app called the Wonder Weeks. It affects everything from behavior, to sleep patterns, it can also be a period of physical growth, etc.

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