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Supporting Frustration in Early Childhood

By Marion Reader, Infant-Toddler Classroom Teacher

If you’ve ever spent time with a child under 5 or under, they get frustrated. Often. And their frustration can take all different forms; yelling, crying, refusing to move, not stopping moving, not listening to directions, and general irritation. As an adult, it can often be challenging to both see our little ones feeling upset and also dealing with behavior we find to be an “overreaction” or “not useful.” 

However, despite the grown-up frustrations with these behaviors and reactions, frustration is something that we can support our children/students through and help them grapple with to become even more adept problem solvers. The first step to supporting a child through frustration is realizing that all of their reactions feel proportional to them. And because these reactions feel proportional, they are, in fact, the correct response for that specific child. Therefore, even if we find the yelling or stoic statue bodies over-the-top, the child is doing what they feel they must do to either achieve their goal or get help. This change of perspective has been greatly helpful in my work with young children, and offers me a lens into their experiences that I would not have otherwise. Being able to see the deep, real, and valid effect frustration is having on my students has helped me remain calm and give them more useful support. 

The second step to supporting children through frustration is to not try to get rid of the source of frustration, but to help them see that they can solve the problem that caused the frustration. If we only work on stopping a child from crying when they can’t climb up the stairs by themselves, we are only mitigating the frustration response, not the actual problem that caused them to be frustrated. Therefore, we should help this child achieve their goal of climbing the stairs, even if they cry through the process. By guiding their feet to supportive spots and reminding them to squeeze their bellies, they will have overcome the frustrating problem rather than feel emotionally better but still be facing the same challenge that will frustrate them again in the future. Overcoming the initial problem sets children up for success in future situations and shows them that they can still do hard things, even if it’s upsetting. And, most of all, lets children know that it’s okay to be upset while they try to achieve a goal. Some goals are incredibly difficult in life, whether it’s climbing into the sandbox or graduating college, and it’s a-okay to be sad, mad, and frustrated during the process. 

This is also to say that we should not mitigate the frustration for the child, even if we feel like that will bring and end to their frustration behavior and therefore our adult frustrations with their behaviors. Yes, this may be more work, but it will ultimately allow students to feel more empowered to overcome challenges in the future. If a child is deeply frustrated that they cannot get their lunch because they have not washed their hands, the solution is not to just give them their lunch and try to practice handwashing later. The solution is to help them wash their hands through their frustration, which, yes, can sometimes be time consuming and full of splashes. After they have washed their hands, even in their heightened state, the basis is there for how they can solve the problem of “wanting but not getting lunch” in the future. 

Finally, we must remain calm. Super calm. And consistent. For toddlers and young children, tone of voice and body language often say more to them than our actual words. Even when we become upset, annoyed, or frustrated with our children/student’s responses to problems, remaining calm and consistent will deeply benefit their problem-solving process. Sometimes frustrations may lead children to tantrums or a general state of upset that is challenging to be a part of. If we continue to say things along the lines of “I see that this is really hard for you, let’s take a deep breath and try again.” or “I know you’re feeling frustrated, can I help you?” We allow children to feel the full extent of the ramifications of their frustration, but we do not let their frustration take over the problem they wanted to solve in the first place. This sort of calm consistent tone and phrases allows us as adults to help children begin developing the understanding that you will inevitably get frustrated in life, but that it is possible to move through it and find a solution. One setback does not mean anyone is incapable. 

So, as difficult as it is to see our young ones in distress, and as hard as it can be to hear screams or deal with children not listening, taking it upon ourselves to assist children through their frustrations and solve the problems of which they are capable, sets them up for great successes the following days, weeks, and years. The next time you encounter a frustrated young person, take a breath, and let them know they can do it.