How to calm a frustrated child

Does your child piff a toy across the room in frustration? Hit their baby sister for knocking down their blocks the umpteenth time? If so, it doesn’t mean your child is ‘naughty’, and it doesn’t mean they’re going to grow up with frustration or anger issues.

But it may mean that they’re having trouble organising this strong emotion, called frustration and expressing it in a meaningful way.

Feeling frustrated is normal.

Every child is learning how to manage their emotions, including my own son. This is how my son experienced it as a toddler:

Unlike his little girl friends who could speak eloquently in full blown sentences, my little boy at two years of age could say only few words albeit important ones (truck, car and duck!).

He could understand what I was saying to the extent of following instructions but for the most part, he was still largely non-verbal despite his comprehension being great.

While this was frustrating for me as sometimes I wasn’t sure what he wanted, it was especially frustrating for him not being able to communicate what he wanted.

Imagine needing something but not being able to communicate what it is and how it can be met. It would indeed be frustrating!

When the new baby came along, the frustrations increased with the toppling down of towers he had built as the baby learnt to move.

My little boy was so young, yet developing so much. He was learning all about himself and his environment. He was continually testing his caregivers (dad and me) to make sure they would still be there for him. He was learning about being sociable.

So many emotions, so many feelings, and so many experiences for such a little boy – it was not wonder he became frustrated at times.

And as a parent, it was (still is) my responsibility to help him organise his feelings.

Frustration in humans is normal. We all experience it. We all feel it at certain points in our life.

But it is how we manage our frustration and how we express our frustration that matters the most.

Many psychologists help adults calm themselves down during episodes of frustration by using a number of techniques. These include deep breathing, counting to ten, taking a break, talking it through, and reframing, to name a few. I have undertaken much training in this area, and have helped many adults manage their emotions in this way.

Yet as I sat and watched my little boy throw another toy truck across the room, it occurred to me:

  • Why am I not teaching my little one how to manage his emotions at his young age?
  • Why am I waiting until he is an adult before I start teaching him these valuable skills?

So I started on a journey towards teaching my little one to manage his emotions.

I began with the ‘don’t get frustrated’ spiel, but like any statement that tells someone not to do something, it backfired and was completely useless. I’m not sure why I tried it to be honest, I know better than that!

Instead, I went back to my basic training and employed the following approach, in order:

1. I used feeling words to help him identify and recognise how he was feeling:

“You’re feeling frustrated”.

2. I expressed empathy:

“You’re feeling frustrated at not being able to stack that block”.

3. I offered guidance on how to express his frustration more effectively:

“Instead of throwing our toys, let’s take a deep breath”.

4. I showed him how:

“Let’s do it together – I will take a deep breath with you… “.

5. I offered encouragement:

“Let’s keep trying” or “Let’s try stacking the block again”.

6. I praised him for trying:

“Well done! You took a deep breath and tried again”.

This strategy didn’t work the first time. He did calm down, but he became frustrated again only five minutes later.

And it didn’t work the second time, either. Or the third.

But I was persistent and consistent in my approach to these re-occurring situations. And I asked my husband, my mother and my son’s child care educators to all employ the same response to my son’s behaviour. Ultimately, my son was getting the same message about how to manage his frustration from all of his carer givers.

After several weeks, our persistence and consistency paid off!

I was cooking dinner and watching him struggle to put his cars in his little yellow bucket. I heard his whine and I knew he was winding himself up. But instead of hurling a car across the room, I saw his little shoulders rise and fall as he took a deep breath and he tried to put the car in the bucket again.

And he succeeded!

I was so proud – not because he achieved putting the car in the bucket, but because he self-soothed; he regulated his own emotions and expressed them in a more effective way.

This was a massive improvement for him.

I told him how clever he was at taking a deep breath and said I was very proud of him.

Now at age 3.5 years old I see my child expressing his emotions better than some adults I know! When he comes frustrated, he takes a deep breath and tries again, and again, and again until at least he succeeds or yells out ‘Mummay’ for some help.

If my narrative of my son accurately describes your child, I encourage you to try this strategy for a few weeks. Please persevere with it, and please be consistent.

After all, you are giving him skills that he will be using for the rest of his life!

 

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