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6 Steps to calming a frustrated child

Does your child throw toys or lash out when he or she is frustrated?

Mine does.

He can pelt a mega block from one side of the lounge room to the other. He can throw a car so hard it dents the coffee table.

But this doesn’t mean he is a naughty kid, and it doesn’t mean he is going to grow up with frustration or anger issues.

What it means is that he hasn’t yet learnt to express his feelings.

frustrated child_2

My son is going on two years of age (or 18, I’m not sure!). Unlike his little girlfriends who can speak eloquently in full blown sentences, my little boy can say a few words (namely truck, car and duck), and can understand what I’m saying to the extent of following instructions. For the most part, he still largely non-verbal despite his comprehension being exceptional.

While this is frustrating for me as sometimes I’m not sure what he wants, it is especially frustrating for him not being able to communicate what he wants.

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

My little boy is so young, yet developing so much.

He is learning all about himself and his environment. He is continually testing his caregivers (dad and me) to make sure they will still be there for him. He is learning about being socialable. So many emotions, so many feelings, and so many experiences for such a little boy – it is not wonder he gets frustrated at times.

And as a parent, it 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.

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:

Little girl sitting on white among toys and crying

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.

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!

What strategies have you used to help your child calm their frustration?

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Is your child a biter? See Responding to your child biting for great tips on how to manage this challenging behaviour

Get your child involved in every day activities with Making household jobs and physical activity fun with kids.

About Lauren Jackman (157 Articles)
Lauren Jackman is the author of Canberra Mummy. A self-confessed perfectionist, Lauren writes about the truth about pregnancy and parenting for perfectionist mummies. Lauren is a mum, wife, author, runner and a not a bad cook

7 Comments on 6 Steps to calming a frustrated child

  1. Oh that’s great you’ve made such good progress with your little guy! Your hard work has definitely paid off. The threes and twos are hard years with all of those emotions running around. I’m finding success with a timeout for my two year old at the moment. She now knows when she’s let her temper get the better of her and sometimes even takes herself for a time out lol! #teamIBOT

  2. Great tips! Amazingly this is exactly what I did with my girl who refused to eat today, totally out of instinct but good to remember for when she hits toddlerhood. EEEkkk!

  3. Great article! I know it is so hard to tell with a frustrated kid and you get upset and it just makes it worse. I constantly need to remind myself that they are just kids.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. One of mine gets easily frustrated, and while I can usually read the signs and head it off, it’s important for them to learn how to manage it. I’ll try this next time.

  5. Frustration is present in our house with Dora (4) at the moment. I sent her to her room when she lost it when I moved her blocks… but I think I could have handled it much better. Thanks for a reminder that we need to teach them how to express themselves. Thanks too for sharing at the weekly wrap up.

  6. We’re having exactly the same issues with my daughter who is 2 in 2 weeks. I’m trying similar things with her except I think I need to add in something like taking a breath. I use the feeling words and describe what shes feeling then when shes calmed down we try again and use lots of praise but I never thought to teach her to take a deep breath.

  7. I just found your post via the Weekly Wrap Up link up. Lovely to ‘meet’ you and I love your advice here. My son is now 15 and still needs a few of these strategies! My daughter was definitely able to take charge of her own emotions which has really helped her settle into her new life away from us at the ANU. It was hard for me to say goodbye when she first started but I have seen her blossom, evolve and mature into a spectacular young woman.

    Take care and stay warm!
    Natasha in Oz

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