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

By Alicia Brooks Waltman and Corinne Garcia
Updated: March 07, 2019

It's no secret that life is full of irritations, as anyone who has endured a traffic jam or tried on the 25th pair of jeans in a fitting room will tell you. Yet handling frustration is a much bigger obstacle for young children. How do you help your toddler 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. Here are some clever ways to cope with toddler frustrations.

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. 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, M.D., 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, M.D., coauthor of The Yale Child Study Center Guide to Understanding Your Child (Little Brown).

How to Deal with Frustrated Toddlers

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.

Give your kid some control. Letting him take charge, even for a few minutes, gives your child the power he craves. When possible, offer him two choices. Ask him if he’d prefer to wear the red shirt or the yellow one. Let him choose between string beans and peas. These might seem like minor decisions to you, but they’ll reduce the likelihood he’ll throw a tantrum about other things.

There are other ways to let your toddler take control as well. 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.

Be empathetic. The anger your child feels when she’s denied what she wants can be confusing and scary. Articulating how she must be feeling in simple language will make her feel understood—and make the emotions feel less foreign to her the next time.

Consider signing. Young toddlers understand language, but still don’t have the motor skills to form words. It would drive you crazy, too, if you knew what you wanted to say but couldn’t say it. Teaching your child a few signs (like those for milk, more, eat, bed, hot, cold, hungry, finished) and using them when you say the words can help you grasp what he’s thinking.

Change the topic. When your toddler is bent out of shape, redirect her. Maybe do a silly dance or point to a bird in the sky. You can also say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you. But I need your help!” Then ask her to push a mini shopping cart at the store or bring a book into the other room. She’ll probably be proud to do a big-girl task and forget what made her frustrated.

Monitor his emotional temperature. "Kids are reactive at this age," says Jean M. Thomas, M.D., co-director 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.

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. 

Sources: Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Minds; Michelle Anthony, Ph.D., coauthor of Signing Smart With Babies and Toddlers; John Medina, Ph.D., author of Brain Rules for Baby.

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