Coping with Toddler Frustration

What to do if your toddler has more will than skill.

Super Parent's best tips on how to handle the toughest toddler situations, like whining and full-blown meltdowns.

You Can't Always Get What You Want

It's no secret that life is full of irritations, as anyone who has sat in a traffic jam or tried on the 25th pair of jeans in a fitting room will tell you. However, handling frustration is a much bigger obstacle for young children. "When my daughter Shelby was 2, I unearthed a bunch of old Weebles for her to play with," says Andrew Gale of Brooklyn. "She kept trying to lay them on their side, and they kept popping back up. Every time that happened, she'd shriek with rage."

How do you explain to a toddler that Weebles wobble but they don't fall down? And how do you help her turn her most discouraging moments into learning experiences that encourage her to ask for what she wants, problem-solve, and try new ways of accomplishing goals? With a lot of patience and some advice from experts and parents.

Cranky Babies and Testy Toddlers

Naturally, how often and how easily a child becomes frustrated depends on her individual temperament. An active, sensitive child may be more quickly undone by a stubborn snap on a doll's dress than her laid-back playmate is. But frustration is a universal part of early development, and as a child's interests and abilities grow, so too does the range of things that stymie her. For example, a 6-month-old who's trying to feed herself may get fussy when her food continually lands on the floor instead of in her mouth; a 9-month-old learning to crawl may cry when an attractive toy is just out of reach.

However, because babies are easily distracted and often accept help if it gets them what they want, managing their temper isn't nearly the problem that it is with toddlers. Why? Because of a toddler's limited ability to control his emotions. This is a skill that takes time and practice to develop, so it's not realistic to expect a child younger than 4 to react rationally and to ask for assistance when things don't go his way.

A toddler's never-ending quest for independence and exploration (and his parents' desire to keep him safe) is another factor. "Toddlers are curious, and we often tell them not to do things," says Nancy Spector, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at St. Christopher's Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. "We make rules to ensure their safety and to teach them what is acceptable, and they get annoyed."

Another thing about being a toddler: "Their knowledge is both limited and contextual, so familiar situations can easily become confusing and frustrating," says developmental psychologist Claire Kopp, PhD, author of Baby Steps (Owl Books). "I saw this at an ice cream shop. A mother and her toddler were there to pick up a cake for his birthday party later that day, and he couldn't understand why she wouldn't buy him a cone, because that's what they normally did," says Kopp. "He didn't realize he would have his ice cream later with his cake."

And no matter how many skills a toddler has mastered, "She doesn't have all the skills she needs to do what she wants," says Linda C. Mayes, MD, coauthor of The Yale Child Study Center Guide to Understanding Your Child (Little Brown). This can be particularly true when there's an older sibling around. Margarite Daniel of Vista, California, has seen this with her daughter, Sophia, 2. "Sophia was playing with Legos with her 6-year-old brother, Alex. As he launched a spaceship he had built, Sophia flew into a rage because her creation didn't look like his," says Daniel. "As a final statement, she bit him on the leg." Indeed, a toddler's limited vocabulary makes it hard for her to communicate clearly.

Making the Most of Touchy Times

As trying as your child's frustration may be, it's important to remember that it actually serves a purpose. For example, when your child can't fit the square block into the triangular hole in her shape sorter, she learns that she needs to try another way to accomplish her goal. Here's how to avoid outbursts and make the most of learning experiences.

  • Let her do it herself. There's nothing more gratifying to a toddler than figuring out how to do something on his own. But accomplishing tasks takes trial and error, which leads to tantrums. "My 15-month-old, Holly, is determined to put her sippy cup together on her own, but she can't snap all the parts in place and cries as if her heart will break," says Jane Isaacson of Pittsburgh. Isaacson found a compromise -- she tackles the tougher parts and then lets Holly put on the lid. Strategies such as these help turn aggravation into a learning opportunity.

    There are other ways to let your toddler complete a task on her own. If she likes to tend to your houseplants but can't handle the watering can, for instance, fill a small one she can easily wield. Though she may not be able to use a knife or set the table, she can sprinkle carrots on a salad or put out napkins. When it comes to things your child can't do on her own, such as completely dressing herself, give her a say in the decision-making. Ask your daughter if she'd like to wear her pink shirt or her blue dress today. She can put on her socks before you tie her shoes.

  • Don't jump in too quickly. Practice some patience while your child attempts a task. "My 2-year-old, Annika, wants to put on her own tights. She'll turn around in circles and twist them all over, but wants no help from Mom," says Susanna Wahlsten of New York City. "So I walk away for a minute. If she's still struggling, I make a joke to calm her down by saying, 'Are those tights trying to run away?' That makes her feel better and gives her time to figure it out."

    But if, after several tries, the challenge is just too much, help. Guide her hand as she stacks blocks, or show her how to pull the comb through her doll's hair. "But don't force it," says Kopp. "Jumping in too quickly may discourage a child from doing things on her own, or may make her feel incompetent."

  • Monitor his emotional temperature. "Kids are reactive at this age," says Jean M. Thomas, MD, codirector of the Infant and Toddler Mental Health Program at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "They're sensitive to internal issues, such as hunger, and external issues, such as packed malls and restaurants." A sated, well-rested child is less likely to come undone than a hungry, tired one.
  • Reduce unnecessary temptations. The bathroom cabinet holds a garden of delights for a toddler, and he doesn't know that you don't want a toothpaste collage on the carpet. Prevent such scenarios by making sure your child has a place to play where few things are off-limits. Move breakables, and childproof electrical outlets and cabinets. Other tempters, such as Mom's cell phone or the television remote, can be handled by buying your child a toy version of his favorite adult accessory.
  • Keep things age-appropriate. Don't assume that just because he has mastered an impressive block tower, he's ready to build a Lego spaceship. Attempting a challenge way beyond his reach will only fan the frustration fires and lead to more tears. "Kids learn and develop in increments," says Dr. Thomas. "When they accomplish one task, they're ready for another task that is a little bit harder, but not light-years beyond their ability." So choose age-appropriate toys and games, and don't push kids to do more than they're able. They'll let you know when they're ready to tackle that spaceship.

Alicia Brooks Waltman is a mother of two and a writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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