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.
1. 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.”
There are more productive responses to help the child work through the situation. Emerson suggests:
2. Stay close
Some children will accept being held and comforted, while others simply need you to stay close and show empathy. Neills says: “I’ve learned that sometimes Amelia does not want me to hold her, touch her, talk to her or even give her eye contact. I used to walk away, but now I see that she needs me there.” And Emerson cautions, “Putting a child in time out or on a ‘naughty chair’ can make him feel rejected at a time when he needs help to deal with his emotions.”
3. Set them up for success
Toddlers are much more quickly frustrated if they’re hungry, tired or stressed, so paying attention to those needs can help stave off frustration. Neills noticed that when she organized group playdates, Amelia often ended up having a tantrum. “I figured out that Amelia is happier to play with one friend at home.”
Giving choices can also help, says Emerson. Toddlers are developing independence and often resist direct orders, then become frustrated when you insist. “I was outside playing with a little girl I was caring for,” Emerson recalls, “and when I told her it was time to go in, she said, ‘No!’ I could see frustration brewing, so I said, ‘Do you want to walk with big elephant steps or little mouse steps?’” It turned out the little girl was in the mood for big elephant steps, and the tantrum was averted.
4. Tolerate the tears
“We don’t like to see our children upset,” says Emerson, “but it’s important for them to experience their emotions. If you give in every time the tears start or every time your child stomps his feet, what is he learning?” Don’t give in, but do respect their feelings. Kay van Akker, mother of two-year-old James, says, “I let him have it out and then we’ll regroup, cuddle, read a story, nurse or find another activity.”
It’s worse, of course, when you’re out in public and getting dirty looks. When her kids were toddlers, Emerson often carried a sign that said “tantrum in progress” and would put it on the ground beside her screaming, kicking child. “The embarrassment we feel when these things happen, that’s our issue,” she says. “Really, everyone has been there. This is what toddlers do. And some can do it for hours.”
5. Be patient
Isn’t that the advice for every toddler issue? “The thing is their brains are immature,” says Emerson. “You can’t make toddlers grow up any faster. Eventually, they will be better able to handle their emotions. But it will take time.”
*Names changed by request.
This article was originally published in July 2011.