If new challenges often send your toddler into tears, send the message that it pays to persevere.

By Nancy Mattia
October 05, 2005

Trying Times

Kyle O'Shaughnessy was thrilled when his dad bought him a Thomas the Tank Engine set. But when he couldn't figure out how to navigate the trains through a covered bridge, the 18-month-old's mood quickly changed. "He threw a fit, pushed the toys away, and started to cry," says his mom, Cathy, of Glenview, Illinois. "I'd never seen him so upset."

Most 1-year-olds will have similar episodes of frustration, since they're at an age when their desires often outpace their abilities. Most anything -- a challenging jigsaw puzzle, a lid that won't come off easily, or a caregiver who doesn't understand his grunts -- can send a toddler into a tearful, body-thrashing tantrum.

You may find dealing with your child's frustrations, well, frustrating. But take heart: His behavior actually signals a positive developmental step. "He's learning that the world has limits, and there are things he can conquer and things he can't," explains Irwin Benuck, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern Medical School, in Chicago. Our soothing strategies will help ease the stress for both of you.

Trying Times

Now that your toddler is beginning to walk, talk, push, pull, lift, and climb, she's able to explore more of the world on her own. Yet your fearless adventurer keeps running into roadblocks: She has some finger dexterity but not enough to throw a ball accurately. She can say a few words but perhaps not clearly enough to let you know she wants an apple right now.

Often the best approach is to let your 1-year-old continue to try -- and try again. Don't be so quick to jump in to rescue her, even if she's struggling. This may seem counterintuitive to your role as a parent, but just as adults learn from their mistakes, so do toddlers.

"It's natural to want everything to be perfect for your child," says psychotherapist Barbara K. Polland, Ph.D., a professor of child and adolescent development at California State University at Northridge. "But children need to learn that instant gratification isn't always possible. Not all problems can be solved in 30 seconds." Experiencing frustration teaches your toddler how to cope with obstacles, a valuable skill he'll need for the rest of his life, says Dr. Polland, who is also the author of No Directions on the Package: Questions and Answers for Parents With Children From Birth to Age 12.

In addition, intervening may frustrate your child more. My son, Matthew, and I would often sit together and stack his favorite blocks. Whenever the pile got too high and threatened to fall, I'd instinctively set them right. But instead of thanking me with a gummy grin, my toddler would scrunch up his face and bang his hands and feet on the floor. It took me a while to realize that Matt wasn't upset with the blocks -- he was upset with me.

Confidence Boost

"Toddlers desperately try not to depend on adults," Dr. Polland says. "Being able to do more for themselves is what fosters their self-esteem." If you come to your 1-year-old's aid too soon and too often, you run the risk of turning her into an individual who asks for help at the first sign of difficulty, even before she tries tackling the problem herself.

That's not to say you should never offer assistance. If your child does want help, step in without actually completing the task yourself, Dr. Benuck suggests. For instance, loosen the lid of a difficult box just enough so your toddler can pull it off himself. Your child feels pride in his accomplishments if you give him a role -- even a tiny one -- in the problem-solving process. This approach also encourages your child to think of you as a source of support but not necessarily as the answer to his every dilemma.

Another way to sidestep fits of frustration is to offer your toddler only age-appropriate toys that are challenging but not beyond her capabilities. (An older sibling's playthings, for instance, may inadvertently set up your 1-year-old for failure.) Consider putting away troublesome toys until she's a little older, or take them out only when you can play along and gently guide her.

Can-Do Spirit

Be patient and empathetic when your child gets frustrated with a challenging task or toy. You might say, "I know you're trying very hard to put the puzzle together and you feel angry that the pieces don't fit." This will help give him the vocabulary to interpret his feelings, Dr. Polland says. By contrast, if you tell your toddler that you think the pieces are fitting nicely -- when they're clearly not -- you're insulting his judgment. Dismissing his frustration may only upset him more.

If he really wants to stop, let him, but suggest that he take a go at it another day. Your support will eventually teach him that persistence pays off.

Parents Magazine