How You Should Respond to Frustration Tantrums

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Frustration tantrums are different from temper tantrums. Read all about what a frustration tantrum is and why and how you should respond differently.

Child crying in black and white

All tantrums are not the same. The type of tantrum your child is having should impact your response to the tantrum.

You have your basic toddler temper tantrum. Read all about How to Deal With Toddler Tantrums here. You also have tantrums that are caused by frustration. 

On Becoming Toddlerwise discusses the difference between a frustration tantrum and a temper tantrum starting on page 139: “A frustration tantrum happens when a child cannot make his body accomplish the task his mind can clearly understand” and “Frustration is the basis of these tantrums, not a defiant angry heart” (page 140).

A frustration tantrum can be difficult to deal with. Your child is upset because she can’t get what she wants.

This is when your child is trying to do something, can’t, and gets mad.

She is frustrated because she isn’t getting her way, and she demonstrates that through a tantrum.

A tantrum is not the type of behavior you want your child displaying, but you don’t want to stifle emotions.

Not all children are the type to really throw frustration tantrums.

The more particular and perfectionistic children are, the more prone they are to the frustration tantrums. They are, after all, throwing a tantrum because whatever they are trying to do is not happening.

Children who are very verbally adept won’t get as mad because she can express herself rather than feel like she needs to throw a tantrum to get help. You will also see more “chill” personalities not having many frustration tantrums.

Common Age for Frustration Tantrums

Your child can get these tantrums at a variety of ages.

Brayden first started having frustration tantrums before he even turned one. He was constantly trying to do things that his body just wasn’t ready for. Shortly after he turned one, I started using sign language as a means to curb these tantrums (see Controlling the Young Temper ). By age 4, Brayden rarely had these frustration tantrums. If he started to wind up for one, I quickly stopped him and we worked through it.

Kaitlyn did not start having frustration tantrums until 26 months old. That is when she started to have these frustration tantrums consistently. She had them on occasion around 16 months of age, but they were soon over.

As she entered the world of a two year old, they returned.


Read: Tips for Avoiding and Responding to Tantrums


Frustration tantrums

How to Respond to Frustration Tantrums

You want to respond to the frustration tantrum differently than you respond to the temper tantrum. The temper tantrum is addressing behavior while a frustration tantrum needs to address behavior, it is more about addressing the heart of the matter.

With Brayden, these frustration tantrums escalated due to a lack of ability to communicate. As I presented him with communication tools, they dissipated. When they crept up, I remind him of how to communicate about it and he calmed down. I also remind him to keep trying and that things take practice.

With Kaitlyn, these frustration tantrums are not due to a lack of ability to communicate. Not only is she a year older than Brayden was when they started, but she has always been an excellent communicator.

When Brayden got frustrated, he wanted help with what he was doing. Kaitlyn doesn’t want help. She is truly just frustrated because things are not happening as she wants them to.

A prominent example for her was her taking her own clothes off. In her mind, she was ready to master that skill. Kaitlyn learned very well just by watching people. She only needed to see or hear something once to have it memorized. There were certain things about undressing that she isn’t catching by watching, however.

One morning, Kaitlyn was getting undressed to take a bath. When she pulled down her pants, she pulled only in the front. I sat back and watched as she tried. When she got frustrated, I asked her if she would like some help. “No, I do it myself,” she replied. So I explained that she was doing a good job of pulling down the front, but with pants, she needed to pull on the back, too. With that knowledge, she gave it a try and was successful.

Frustration tantrums are not exclusive to young children. Adults get them, too. While most adults are hopefully able to calm ourselves, I am sure we all have our weaknesses. It might be in a hobby like sewing or mechanic work. It is common to get frustrated when what we want to accomplish doesn’t happen as we picture it.

Here are some tips for dealing with a frustration tantrum:

  • Discover the Reason: Is your child upset because he wants help? Is he upset because he isn’t doing it as perfectly as he wants to? Is he upset because he can’t do it at all? Find out reason so you can find out how to best help him work through it. Ask your child. “Are you upset because you want help?” “Are you upset because you are having a hard time?” Your child might be frustrated because the toy is beyond him. If so, remove the toy
  • Teach Sign Language: If your child is upset because he can’t communicate, teach him how to sign what he needs to say to work through it. This was a huge help for Brayden with these frustration tantrums at a young age.
  • Offer Encouragement: Encourage your child to keep trying. Tell him he is making good progress. Cheer him on.
  • Hang Back: You want to give your child tools (sign language for example), but don’t hover. Don’t be the helicopter mom. I often pretend I don’t notice anything is wrong until the child asks me for help. If she starts to display a tantrum, I calmly look at her and explain that she needs to use words, not fits, to communicate with me. With Kaitlyn, her fits weren’t usually directed toward me. Her fits were her own way of expressing her frustration. With Brayden, they were meant to get my attention and my help.

    You want to give your child the opportunity to accomplish the task on his own. When you jump in, it tells him you know he can’t do it. If anyone finds hanging back difficult, it is me! I always wanted to jump in and rescue, especially with Brayden for some reason. But standing back and allowing your child to do it himself helps him improve. Brayden rarely got upset as he got older. I would hear him talking to himself, “I have to keep trying. It takes practice. I will get better.” Sometimes he needed to take a breath and try again.

  • Require Communication: If you are going to help your child, require that he asks for it in a nice, calm manner first. Don’t teach him that a tantrum gets your attention. You might need to remind him at first that he needs to ask for help in a nice way. He will get there.
  • Explain Reality: This works with older children. When Brayden got frustrated these days at age four or older, I reminded him that things take practice. I told him he can’t expect to be perfect at things the first time he tries; he is going to have to work at it for a while to get as good as he wants to be.
  • Remain Calm and Patient: Losing your temper isn’t going to help your child learn how to control his. Remain calm and patient with him as he works through this stage.

Fun Resources

There are fun ways to address this issue, also. The Little Engine That Could is a great book to read to talk about trying really hard even when the task seems daunting.

Something specifically I did with McKenna as a young toddler was working with puzzles. Around 22 months, we would get a puzzle out.

She would try to put the pieces back in. When they didn’t magically jump right into place, she got mad.

It was a skill I knew she had, so I encouraged her to keep trying. Sometimes I showed her how to turn and manipulate the piece so it could fit.

I kept encouraging her to try, and when she got it, I would cheer for her and say, “You did it! You kept trying and you did it!”

I think pointing this out to the child is very important. I did it with Brayden and do it with McKenna. I also give her high fives because she loves those.

You can do similar things with lots of toys–shape sorters, Legos…anything that is a challenge for your child.

How to respond to a frustration tantrum pinnable image

Mediating During Frustration Tantrums

McKenna was living proof that even with the best plans, intentions, and actions, the frustration tantrums will still come sometimes if your child is prone to them. So what do you do when that tantrum happens?

With two simple words:

Keep trying!

You say it calmly, softly, lovingly, encouragingly (and all other good “ly’s”), with a gentle smile on your face.

What will happen? Well, it won’t be that your child immediately calms herself down, tries again, and succeeds. At first, she might take a deep breath, half-heartedly try, then look at you with defiance to show you that you were indeed wrong to suggest she keep trying. 

What do you say?

Keep trying!

If it is something beyond your child’s skill ability, you might say,

“Do you need some help? Can you say ‘help please’?” You might accompany that with a sign if your child doesn’t say those words yet.

If it is your child’s skill ability, I would encourage her to keep trying and maybe demonstrate to her how to do it.

Sometimes, your child will refuse to ask nicely or to keep trying and will break out into further tantrum. In these cases, I either take the item away or remove the child from the item. I don’t ever give in with a “okay, I will help you” if the child refuses to ask nicely on an age-appropriate level. This does, of course, not apply if the child is in some sort of physical need–so if my child has climbed into a dangerous spot, I help immediately with no questions asked.

So mediating tips:

  1. Encourage your child to keep trying–maybe a deep breath would be good
  2. Teach your child to ask for help
  3. Help as appropriate and allow your child to try on her own as appropriate
  4. If an extreme tantrum breaks out over it, remove your child from the item or the item from the child

Tips for Avoiding Frustration Tantrums

All of the tips above can help you deal with the frustration tantrums, but I think we all agree that avoiding them all together is ideal. 

Brayden was much, much more of a frustration tantrum-throwing than McKenna. However, his tantrums got a lot better when two things happened:

1-Independent Playtime: You might remember we started late. Once he was consistently having  IPT for at least 20 minutes a day on his own, his frustration tantrums greatly reduced. He had a lot more patience to try things on his own and had a better attention span.

>>>Read: Independent Playtime: The Ultimate Overview

2-Sign Language: A big reason for his tantrums was that he was unable to express himself for things like asking for help. I taught him how to sign “help” and it also helped a lot with his tantrums. It gave him something he could do other than just get mad.

>>>Read: How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

McKenna’s frustration tantrums were very mild and far between. I probably, in all honestly, wouldn’t even recognize them as such if I hadn’t had a little Brayden first.

I would be willing to wager that her tantrums would have been more severe if I didn’t have preventative steps in place beforehand.

She did IPT from the beginning of life, so she already had those skills built up to do things on her own and problem solve.

I also saw early signals and mediated with necessary communication skills before things got to full-out tantrum stage.

I did notice, however, that the frustration tantrum usually happened when she was tired or hungry. Most of her tantrums happened when she was sick. Her patience level was low. So, how do you all around avoid these tantrums?

  1. Make sure your child has independent focusing and problem-solving skills
  2. Teach your child to communicate in some way other than the tantrum
  3. Keep your child well-rested
  4. Keep your child well-fed

Our Frustration Tantrum Experience in Action

Here are some stories from our experiences with frustration tantrums at our house.

McKenna was not feeling well and wanted to put Brayden’s rain boots on her feet. She immediately got mad and screamed at the boots. I told her to keep trying. She waved her hands at them in a mad way. I wasn’t sure she was able to put them on herself, so I said, “Do you need help? Can you say ‘Please help’?”

At this point in McKenna’s life, when she was her normal, happy self, anytime she needed help she just came to me and said, “Mama, please help!” So I knew it was something she could say.

On this day, however, she looked at me with a scowl. Then she thought better of it and said “help please!” So I sat her down to put them on. At that point, she got mad again because she wanted to be standing when I put the boots on her feet. I encouraged her to ask nicely for that to happen, she refused, and we put the boots up. So that story didn’t end the way she would have liked, but it did end in a way that taught her an important lesson about being nice. 

When Brayden was around one, he discovered the fun of climbing up one step in our house. He would climb up, but felt nervous to step down on his own. Anytime he got up on the step, he would immediately scream in frustration because he wanted to get back down (so he could step up again). I taught him to sign help. He would then get up, get mad, I would remind him to sign help, he would sign it, I would help him. I did eventually help him learn to step down.

With Brayden, I really had to carry on the “keep trying!” phrase for a long time, and now that he is 5.5, I can’t think of it being a consistent phrase I chant to him, but I am willing to bet I do still use it. I also know, because he has told me, that when he is alone trying something, he will say, “keep trying!” to himself and he does it! 

Conclusion

Remember that these things take time and patience. As you work with your child through this, he will improve, but not overnight. You will, however, see the day when he gets frustrated, takes a breath, and tries again. I have even seen it spill over into other situations.

One day a boy walked up to Brayden, shoved him, yelled, “get me!” and ran away (the boy was trying to initiate tag). Brayden took a deep breath, turned, and walked away. He sat and stared into the distance for a couple of minutes before returning to play. I was impressed with his ability to remain calm and control himself. It is worth the effort you put into teaching your child to control his young temper.

Read even more about Frustration Tantrums here.

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