Toddlers know what they want, but they can't always tell you
Cathy Neills’* two-year-old daughter, Amelia, woke up from a nap and immediately started to cry. When Neills asked what was wrong, Amelia pointed at the kitchen door.
Was the bright light that flooded in from the kitchen hurting her eyes? Neills thought that must be it, so she closed the door. But Amelia remained upset and more tears followed.
Ten minutes later, Neills finally figured it out: Amelia was hungry.
“What frustrates Amelia? Sometimes it’s not being able to move her dolls’ arms and legs the way she wants, or do up a zipper. Sometimes it’s things that puzzle me — like me not going down the stairs ‘correctly’ or not putting her stepstool exactly right against the toilet,” says Neills.
So much about life is frustrating for toddlers. They have big ideas about what they want, but can’t always communicate them clearly. When they do, all too often (from their perspective) the answer is no. They are easily overwhelmed by their emotions, so not being able to do up a zipper can quickly turn into a tantrum.
Frustration is normal
Not only is it normal for toddlers to frequently be frustrated, says parent educator and mom of two Jenny Emerson of Guelph, Ont., it’s essential to their development. Toddlers learn through trial and error; when something doesn’t work for them, they need to experience frustration in order to move on to the next step. “We can’t always make things better,” says Emerson, “but we should try not to make them worse.”
What makes it worse? Getting angry or punishing the child, says Emerson. “Toddlers who are frustrated often behave badly — screaming and hitting. We often react to that behaviour with threats or punishments. That’s not helpful.”