How to Help a Frustrated Child

It’s common for young children to get frustrated as they’re practicing and mastering new skills. As loving parents, it can be challenging to resist our urge to quell these feelings. We might try to talk our kids out of their frustration, or even complete the task ourselves. In this episode of Unruffled, Janet advises a mom who writes that her otherwise capable, confident two-year-old is easily frustrated. How can she respond in a manner that helps him develop more patience?

Transcript of “How To Help a Frustrated Child”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

In this episode, we’re going to talk about frustration. Our child’s, which maybe then leads to ours, of course, and how to help them develop more patience. It’s really common for our children to express frustration as they practice new skills, but how uncomfortable this can be for us to witness, right? So I’m going to be responding to a parent and offering some advice regarding helping her easily-frustrated child learn more patience.

Okay, here’s the note that I received:

Dear Janet,

Thank you for your books, Elevating Child Care and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame. When our son 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. He’s 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 oftentimes just out of control.

It’s easy to judge when you’re not a parent. So when my boy 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. That’s why I appreciate 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? My son 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, “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.

He 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 low threshold for frustration, I recommend doing actually the same thing that I recommend in many situations. In fact, if you’ve listened to my other podcasts, you probably notice that there’s a thread running through all of them that I’ve experienced in my work with parents as the most important message, that we need to keep reminding ourselves of because it’s a huge challenge. And that is just letting the feelings be. Allowing our children to experience whatever they’re feeling, not trying to fix it or change it or shorten it even, or control it in any way. We’re going to help them control their behaviors, obviously, but not the feelings themselves.

And really this is just trusting children to have these naturally uncomfortable experiences, particularly these age-appropriate uncomfortable experiences. In this case, when this boy 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 and whining, I can’t do it! So rather than say something there, I’d consider just letting that be what it is. He’s expressing his feeling beautifully right there.

And then if he throws the thing down— well, first of all, we want to generally not give our children access to unsafe objects that could hurt them if they throw them. Still, we obviously don’t want him throwing stuff. But the throwing in a way, it’s very similar to— well, even if he wasn’t throwing, just expressing this feeling is very similar to a writer who’s frustrated. And in the old days, we used to write on a typewriter. We rip the page out of the typewriter, crumple it up, throw it into the trash can. Just getting that frustration out.

And what happens when we get that frustration out is we open up something. We open up that space again, where we can come back and approach the challenge again. Or sometimes we might let it go and move on to something else. But oftentimes we let go, we clear that feeling. “Okay, this is really hard,” we might say to ourselves, and then we give it a minute, and we’ve started again. Well, children do this too, but what can happen 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 to fix it for them, because we’re uncomfortable and we’re maybe riding this wave with them and we just want it to stop. Doesn’t feel comfortable to us either. So it can help us to get off of that wave, be the anchor instead, and separate ourselves from the feelings. These aren’t our feelings and it’s very safe and very positive for a child to experience them.

If we’re frustrated about something and let’s say our loved one or a friend says something like, Well, you just focus a little harder. If you just try a little more, you’ll get this. Or, Here, I can help you. That’s not really what we want, right? We don’t want to be told we should work harder or have this other person do it for me. I want to do it myself. I really do. I just want you to let me be upset for a minute because this is part of my process. That’s all I want: See me. Acknowledge that I’m upset, and that I have a right to be.

One of the reasons that I’m comfortable working with parents and toddlers is that, as you’ve probably heard me say on this podcast, I very much relate to the way toddlers feel. A part of me must have gotten emotionally stuck in those years somehow. And I think we could 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 a very healthy time, actually. So while it’s totally well-meaning, obviously very well-meaning in this parent’s case, it can be a little annoying when we just want to say that we’re frustrated and people aren’t comfortable. They want to fix it for us or tell us that we should just do it this way. We’ve chosen this challenge that we’re taking on for a reason— because we want to be able to do it.

And that’s a little bit what this mother’s doing, so lovingly and it’s so understandable that she wants to do this. But this is more her own concern that she’s bringing up when she says, “You’re frustrated, but some things are hard to figure out.” The message a child can receive there is: 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 you don’t need to feel what you’re feeling. And it’s a subtle, subtle message for sure, because again, this mother is very well-intentioned as we all are when we have this urge to talk our child out of the feeling. Well, everybody I know, and certainly I have the urge to say something like that. But what it does is invalidates it: You shouldn’t be frustrated. You have to focus. You have to focus. This is how you can do better.

So I really hope this doesn’t sound like I’m criticizing this parent because that is the last thing that I intend. Her examples sound intuitive to me. That’s why I chose this to respond to on this podcast, because this is what I and perhaps many of us would naturally, reflexively say.

She says, “I can’t let you throw your toys.” So the thing is here, he’s already thrown the toy and he likely knows he wasn’t supposed to do that because children learned this the first time they ever tried throwing a toy. So a message like that can be a waste of our energy because it’s disconnecting. Our child isn’t going to really feel seen there. So instead, if he’s still caught up in that feeling, I would be ready at that point to stop him. Block that, touching his hand, touching the toy, and say, “Oh, 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.” So a little more of a helpful mode, seeing that he’s in a state where he’s likely not as able to follow a direction like, “Stop throwing your toys.” I would just focus on keeping him safe while a hundred percent accepting his feelings.

And maybe saying something like, “Yeah, that’s so hard.” Maybe even the same words that this parent did use without the “but some things are hard to figure out.” Instead, “It’s hard to figure that out.” So we’re connecting with him right where he is in this experience. We’re joining him right there. Yeah, it’s hard. This is really hard for you. Only matching what we’re getting from him. And if he’s whining, Yeah, I hear you. That’s hard. You’re doing something difficult, you’re having a hard time with it. That’s all you have to say. I wouldn’t try to give him instruction at that time. Maybe if he was calmer or if he was trying something for the very first time. And this is, again, to meet and connect with him where he is, which is much harder to do when kids feel misunderstood or invalidated, not seen. Instead, all they need is just to vent and clear the feeling so that they can move on and achieve what they’re trying to achieve or get closer to it or decide to give up. That kind of needs to be okay with us too. We really don’t need to fear these feelings. These 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 this is saying though, and this mother doesn’t mean it at all that way, but what it’s 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 instead. Reasonable things that make sense. Very reasonable— ask someone for help. But the thing is, the emotions are not reasonable. They’re just impulses. They pass through us, they just flow out. And at this age, they’re very, very good at flowing out. So it’s a positive thing. We don’t have to try to make him act reasonably about emotions, and we don’t need to teach him patience. They learn this through our modeling. They learn this through the self-control that they gradually develop, their executive function.

But even as adults, we go through periods and have emotional times where we don’t feel as patient, and that’s okay, right? Children are encouraged to be more patient mostly by being able to follow their own interests. And it sounds like this parent is doing that brilliantly, allowing him to flip through the books, play with his bricks, letting him choose. When he is playing for a very long time on his own, he’s showing that he has a lot of patience in all of these activities. 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 when it’s not going our way. It means that when we do flip out, we eventually get back to feeling better, feeling calmer, feeling like we released something we needed to release. That’s still patience. It’s patience with some feelings around it, some messy feelings that come out, but it’s still patience. So we can trust children’s process. We’ll never go wrong trusting our child’s process.

And then if they ask for help, doing the most minimal thing. I probably wouldn’t help at all if a child didn’t ask me, but if a child asks, the way I help can sometimes look like I’m just giving moral support. And that’s often all that they really need or want. So 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. So we’re letting him try. We’re keeping this very slow and gradual on our part, not rushing.

And most importantly, being calm ourselves, trying not to get anxious. Which we can do when we practice trust, knowing that this is safe for him to experience. When we’re anxious, it’s almost impossible to be patient in a situation like this one. Instead, we’re feeling maybe like, Oh no, he’s going to explode. I better help so he doesn’t. And if we think about it, that’s actually how we are modeling, and therefore encouraging, less patience. So being calm, being patient, not worrying. Allowing a child to be in this process, not jumping our child to the finish line or jumping there ourselves in our mentality.

And then maybe we notice, because we’re open, we’re not in a rush, we’re trusting that it’s okay for him to feel uncomfortable here. We notice that, Hmm, it’s more like he’s kind of spit blowing instead of slow blowing, the kind that works. Blowing bubbles is really hard. I remember that being a hard skill for my kids to learn. It does take calmness and it takes finesse. Maybe there’s something else we can say there like, “Hmm, maybe if you put your mouth like this?” and showing him. So we’re talking him through it, trying to do the most minimal thing to allow him to do more, which means learn more and accomplish more. The more he does, the more confidence he has the next time. So we’re still helping, but helping doesn’t mean we do it for him. Helping means that we trust him and we’re there to support him and pay attention, but not to expect or meet a certain outcome.

If we’re really there with our child and not jumping ahead, sometimes we’ll notice that our child actually loses interest. And what’s interesting is, I notice sometimes that parents in my classes, they’ll be staying engaged in the task after the child has already moved on. The child has dropped that and is onto something else. Trust that. The tendency many of us have is to jump ahead of our 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 this. I’ve seen this happen a lot and I understand it because a part of me still feels that right along with the parents. That’s when we’re getting caught up in the goal rather than just being there to support our child with what our child is interested in doing. Meeting them where they are, not where we want them to be. So if he puts the wand down and starts going to something else, we don’t have to try to keep him doing this. Let it go. And that encourages patience because patience is about being in a process.

And 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. And we’re often the ones who teach them that they have to get the goal and that there’s nothing to enjoy about the process, it’s only good if you’re able to do it correctly. If we’re aware of that difference in the way that we as adults often think from the way children do, we won’t need to influence our child that way. And instead, we can encourage them to be as process-oriented as they naturally are. They have this gift, and if they can hold onto that even a little throughout life, they’re going to achieve a lot more than a person that feels that they’re failing unless they get to the end goal, which is most of us. So that is developing patience. And they’re probably going to be a lot happier, too.

And by the way, this parent mentions the addition of the new baby, it’s especially important to allow our child to express all his feelings because he’s in this big transition. There’s always a reason for the feelings, but there may be extra frustration coming out during these tasks that he is trying to do because it’s actually feelings of fear that are coming up for him around this impending huge change in his life. Which I’m sure is not lost on him. He’s heard people talking about it and he’s getting that there’s some big, mysterious, scary thing that’s going to happen. I mean, this is mysterious enough to us as adults, and we have a frame of reference for it. So there are a lot of reasons for him to have more whining and crying and frustration and fear. And that’s another reason for us to always trust the feelings, not try to color them or correct them or fix them. Only accept them. These feelings are gold.

I really hope some of this helps and I hope it makes sense. And thanks so much to this parent for asking. She has everything she needs to make this subtle shift in her approach.

Please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. And you can even get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

And please check out some of my other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. You can get them in e-book at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. And you can even get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast.

And for the complete scoop on respectful discipline, please check out my No Bad Kids Master Course.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

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.

  6. Thank you Janet!
    I’ve been listening to your podcasts and learning so much from them!!
    I also ought and read your book “No bad kids”.
    I would like to read your other book, or better listen to it, so I followed the link above where you wrote we can get the book for free on Audible, but it says it costs £7.99.
    Is there a way to get it for free pls?
    Thanks a lot!!
    Shifra

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