Your toddler is trying to put on his rubber boots. He can’t manage it sitting down. When he stands up, the boots won’t stay upright while he aims his wiggly feet into them. His brow is furrowed, his expression tense. You know it has to be frustrating — and no one wants a child to feel the angry helplessness of not quite being able to do something. No one wants to deal with the outcome — the red face, the tears. The tantrum.
A very young child’s life is frustrating. It’s full of things he isn’t able, or isn’t allowed, to do. Naturally a caring parent wants to jump in and make it all right. And there is absolutely nothing to be gained by letting a toddler become overwhelmed by the difficulty of his situation.
But frustration has an important role: Sometimes it pushes us to learn new things. Think of a baby, learning constantly. “What frustrates babies one week they will have mastered two weeks later,” says Jan Blaxall, a professor of early childhood education at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. “That little period of frustration is very hard for them, but parents need to have faith that every frustration is also a new skill developing. In reality, they wouldn’t be moving ahead if they weren’t getting frustrated. New things are always hard.”
We certainly don’t want to let a baby become overwhelmed by frustration. Early on, the goal is to meet — even anticipate — a baby’s every need. Blaxall explains, “You are building trust. The baby has to trust that you can meet most of his needs most of the time.” Then the baby becomes an adventurous toddler. He has his own sense of self and he wants to make his own decisions. That’s when parents need to (sometimes) give the child space and time to work it out himself — and the opportunity to accept help if he wants it.
For that toddler struggling with his boots, the simplest thing might be to put them on for him. But sometimes we step in too quickly.
Kim Pawluck, manager at Mothercraft Eaton Centre in Toronto, says, “Often parents want to ‘save’ the child because they see the frustration and — especially if the child is starting to have tantrums — they want to avoid the kicking and screaming. But there is value in allowing a certain level of frustration. You want children to learn some persistence.”
“On the other hand, allowing a child to become overwhelmed all the time will set him back,” explains Pawluck. “It will foster a feeling of incompetence, and you don’t want him to stop trying. You want balance.”
Finding that balance — the line between stepping in too fast and standing by while a child collapses in an angry heap — takes practice. But the benefits last a lifetime. Blaxall says, “In every situation you’re working with the child, but you’re not necessarily doing it for her. These are teachable moments because there are frustrations throughout life.”
Setting the stage
You can’t eliminate frustration, but you can create an accepting, respectful atmosphere so your toddler can learn how to cope with life’s inevitable ups and downs. Here’s how:
- Acknowledge who your child is. You know whether you have the kind of toddler who can stand at the coffee table and work away on a puzzle for ages — or the kind who dissolves when the first piece doesn’t click into place. That knowledge will help you decide when to step in.
- Allow some independence. A toddler is eager to do things on her own (hard as it may be to watch). Provide opportunities for her to play and explore safely. Choose toys designed for her age so she will have success.
- Share the floor. Getting down at your toddler’s level will give you a close-up perspective on how he manages frustration. “You don’t have to save him, but you can follow his cues, label his emotions and give positive encouragement: ‘You can do this. Keep trying,’” says Pawluck.
- Teach calming measures. Even a very little child can learn what she needs to calm down in frustrating moments, says Blaxall. It might be a cuddle, a story, music or a game of hands-and-knees chase with Dad. “You can teach the child that this is what helps when she’s upset. That’s a skill she will have forever. Children can learn this so young.”
- Be an example. If you let yourself get frustrated at your child’s frustration, the situation escalates. Blaxall says, “Research shows that children learn how to regulate their emotions by watching their parents.”
Tips on how to help, just enough
1. Read your child’s body language.
“Pick up on the little cues,” says Pawluck. “Just by using eye contact, it will be pretty evident when she is getting to the point of no return.” Watch for tensing muscles or clenching the mouth.
2. Give your child the words.
“Are you getting sad? Is that upsetting you? Is it too hard?” The empathy in your voice will tell your child you understand his dilemma — sometimes this will be enough to calm the situation, so pause and see if he settles down.
Or you can describe the problem. When you say, “Those darn boots keep falling over!” you show him a way to look at the problem beyond “I can’t do it!”
If you can’t figure out what the frustration is, and your child doesn’t have words to tell you, say something like “I don’t know what you want. Show me.” Figuring it out exactly is not always possible, but what’s important is showing your child that you care.
3. Ask if she wants your help.
Blaxall says, “For a lot of children, that’s all they need: you asking. The child might say no, but knowing help is available will often let her relax.”
Remember that toddlers struggle with choices — they don’t really understand that choosing one thing means giving up another — so they may not be clear on whether they want your help or not. Blaxall says, “She might accept help, and then change her mind. She wants to be big, but she also gets frustrated. If she changes her mind, let her.”
If possible, don’t do the whole job — allow her the satisfaction of accomplishing the part she can do. Instead of putting those pesky boots right on, you could just hold them steady while she aims her foot and steps in.
4. Talk about how to make it better.
In a reassuring voice, say something like “Don’t worry. We’ll fix it.” Blaxall suggests giving toddlers a couple of alternatives so they begin to realize they have options (“Can we glue on the wheel? Can we find a different toy?”) “You are giving the child the message that when he is frustrated, there are choices.”
5. Celebrate effort as well as success.
When your child accomplishes some frustrating task, Blaxall says, “be sure to celebrate with your child: ‘See, you did it! Yeah!’ Be specific in describing how the child solved the problem.” When she isn’t successful, encourage her to try again another time (“You almost got it. Soon you’ll be able to do it yourself”).
“Optimism leads to resilience,” says Blaxall. And we all want that for our children.
This article was originally published in 2011.
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