Frustration Tantrums

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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.

Some of you have a child who has never thrown a frustration tantrum (yet). Some rarely ever throw tantrums.

Others of you think I made that last sentence up. You have a child who definitely throw frustration tantrums. I am not exactly sure what it is that makes a child prone to frustration tantrums so far as the core personality goes. My guess is the more particular and perfectionistic children are more prone to the frustration tantrums. They are, after all, throwing a tantrum because whatever they are trying to do is not happening. Another strong theory is the child who is 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.

There are other things, however, I am sure contribute to the frustration tantrums. Let’s talk about those.

Avoiding Frustration Tantrums

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.

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.

McKenna’s frustration tantrums have been 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 do notice, however, that the frustration tantrum tends to happen when she is tired or hungry. Most of her tantrums happen when she is sick. Her patience level is 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

Mediating During Frustration Tantrums

McKenna is 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

In Action

Some stories:

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! 

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 am doing with McKenna right now is working with puzzles. She is 22 months. We get a puzzle out. She tries to put the pieces back in. When they don’t magically jump right into place, she gets mad. It is a skill I know she has, so I encourage her to keep trying. Sometimes I show her how to turn and manipulate the piece so it can fit. I keep encouraging her to try, and when she gets it, I 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.


These are some ideas for you to be able to help guide your child through the frustration tantrum. Work through it gently, and some day your child will tell himself to keep trying when you aren’t there! 


Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book, The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on the About page. Follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram for more tips and helps.

Find me on: Web | Twitter | Facebook


  1. Jessica
    February 15, 2011 / 11:00 PM

    Great post! I have a question for you, sort of on this subject. My son is 19 wks old and he falls apart when we take toys away from him. I don't see this as 'tantrum' since he's still young, but there is definitely frustration involved. I think there are two parts to the melt downs: one is frustration with the toy and the other is having the toy taken away. Maybe the second is from frustration, too?He's just recently started to hold toys with relative ease and he's very intense about them. I balance helping him with his toy and letting him figure it out alone. I used to intervene at the first sign of frustration but then I realized I needed to let him work through it. Now I only take it away when it's either very obvious he's done or if it's nap time – meaning, I give him room to play with it while he's still enjoying it so he can 'learn' it.We don't try to prevent the melt down or go to great lengths to distract him while taking the toy away. He stops crying within 30-60 secs of being picked up. He's pretty resilient that way. I just feel bad because it happens every time I take toys away! 🙂 Is this simply normal for his age? I have no reference point since this is our first. I know the frustration component will go away as he becomes more coordinated, but the frustration of the toy being taken away – who knows! It might be a glimpse of his personality showing. 😉 I imagine there is some sort of learning process there… that we get frustrated but it's ok because the feeling goes away? Anyhow, is there anything I can or should do different? Anything to help him out?

  2. bluebird
    February 16, 2011 / 4:12 PM

    A note for Jessica – make sure your son isn't getting too much sugar in his diet. At 19 weeks I think you probably haven't started any solids yet but just in case you have: My husband and I noticed our son (now 16 months old) was very intense about his toys sometimes as well. I can't remember exactly how old he was then but I think he was probably close to your son's age. At the time we had just started feeding him those baby cereals from the store and I noticed that some of them had very high amounts of sugar. Reducing the amount of cereal he ate solved this problem for us. This may not be your problem but it's something to be careful about in the future.P.S. – sorry if I am butting in!Okay, the main reason I wanted to comment was this: Thank you for promoting Babywise!!!It is so wonderful to find someone with so much common sense in a world that seems intent on bashing anyone who even suggests that attachment parenting is not the only way to parent. I think attachment parenting is very wrong by the way.My husband and I have one boy, Henry, who 16 months old. We are also expecting our next baby in June. We babywised Henry from a few weeks old. I am intimidated at the thought of having a 1.5 year old boy and a new baby. I just don't know what life is going to look like after I have the baby. Do you have any blog posts from the time when you had your second child? Any advice is greatly appreciated but I am most interested in details about day-to-day life and what I can expect. I live out in the country but the next time I get to the city, I am planning to purchase the babywise series (I lost mine/gave them away) to refresh myself on the infant stage of babywise and see what the toddler book says I should be doing for my oldest son. Again, thank you so much for being a calm, sensible advocate for babywise.

  3. Plowmanators
    February 18, 2011 / 11:45 PM

    Jessica, I think that sounds young for being upset at taking a toy away, but it isn't abnormal for a child to not want a toy taken away. IF I remember right (and I read this info when Brayden was a baby so I might not), it is around 5-6 months usually when the protesting when toys are taken develops. Try giving a bit of warning. Be empathetic when he is sad and even give a kiss and a hug. He will learn to process the loss so long as you don't respond the the crying by giving it back.

  4. Plowmanators
    February 18, 2011 / 11:52 PM

    Bluebird, readers are always welcome to add their thoughts and experience! And you are welcome!I started this blog when my second was about 7 months old, so I don't have posts initially from when she was home. But I do have some posts on such things. Basically, so long as you have your son on a predictable routine, you will find adding a baby to be rather easy. There will be hard times and a learning curve, but I found adding baby two a MILLION times easier than baby one.Think through how you can do a 2.5-3 hour schedule for an infant with your son's schedule so he isn't left to wander while you take care of baby and so you can give attention to both children individually. I have a "tandems schedules" post under the "Sample schedules" blog index that will help.BTW, you might find the babywise books cheaper on Amazon than at a store, and then they would come to you :)Here are some posts for you:Babywise With Baby Plus Older Child: Schedule with Older Child(ren) : Schedules: Tandem Schedules :

  5. Jessica
    February 19, 2011 / 4:49 AM

    bluebird – you aren't butting in at all! That's really helpful to keep in mind down the road. Also, to look at the ingredients! After I posted about this, I started paying closer attention to his reactions and whether he was tired. Sure enough, if he's eaten recently and isn't tired yet, he doesn't flinch! He gets that, 'hey I was playing with that!' look but is genuinely happy with whatever or whoever takes its place. So it looks like the problem is not the toy itself but tired frustration. I should probably make sure he's not getting over-tired. Since he gets very focused on his toys now, I might be missing some nap cues.I love what you say about being empathetic and processing the loss; I always scoop him up in my arms, kiss his little cheeks and say "Oh, it's ok – life is so hard sometimes!". 🙂 Sounds like I'm headed in the right direction for when he really *will* be protesting. I'm savoring the 'easy' days… 🙂

  6. pricey
    March 2, 2011 / 8:00 PM

    I have a tantrum issue on a totally different level. My daughter turned two this past January. Sometimes when she is told no or has something taken away that she knows she is not to touch, she goes into an uncontrollable tantrum. This does not happen all the time, but when it does, it easily sets the tone for the rest of our day. I have tried to ignore it and walk away, but she follows me around the house screaming. This can go on for a long time. The only way she will calm down is if I will hold her. And then, I can't put her down or it will start all over again. I feel like by holding her, I encourage her to continue with these tantrums. Any ideas on how to stop them?

  7. Plowmanators
    March 21, 2011 / 8:47 PM

    Pricey,I don't think there is anything wrong with holding her if it helps her calm down so long as she doesn't start throwing tantrums in order to be held. If she is doing that, though, I would recommend spending more cuddle time with her.An idea of something to do when she is having a tantrum is set up a pack and play and then put her in it when she has a tantrum and tell her she can get out when she is ready to be happy.

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Frustration Tantrums

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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).

You 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 ). Now, at age 4, Brayden rarely has these tantrums. If he starts to wind up for one, I quickly stop him and we work through it.

Kaitlyn (26 months) only recently 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 have returned. With Brayden, these tantrums escalated due to a lack of ability to communicate. As I presented him with communication tools, they dissipated. When they creep up, I remind him of how to communicate about it and he calms 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 current example for her is taking her own clothes off. In her mind, she is ready to master that skill. Kaitlyn learns very well just by watching people. She only needs to see or hear something once to have it memorized. There are certain things about undressing that she isn’t catching by watching, however.

This 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 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.

In Controlling the Young Temper , I outline some ideas for helping your child get past the frustration tantrum. Here is a list of ideas that includes those from that post as well as new ideas I have learned as Kaitlyn has had her frustration tantrums–but if you are dealing with this right now, do be sure to also see Controlling the Young Temper.

  • 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 aren’t usually directed toward me. Her fits are her own way of expressing her frustration. With Brayden, they were meant to get my attention and 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 want 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 gets upset these days. I hear him talking to himself, “I have to keep trying. It takes practice. I will get better.” Sometimes he needs 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 gets frustrated these days at age four, I remind him that things take practice. I tell 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.

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.


Valerie, also known as The Babywise Mom, is the mother to four children. She has been blogging on Babywise and general parenting since 2007. She has a degree in technical writing and loves using those skills to help parents be the best parents they can be! Read her book, The Babywise Mom Nap Guide, to get help on sleep from birth through the preschool years. You can also find her writing at, Today Parenting, and Her View From Home. Read more about Valerie and her family on the About page. Follow her on FacebookPinterest, and Instagram for more tips and helps.

Find me on: Web | Twitter | Facebook


  1. Becca
    June 22, 2009 / 11:48 PM

    Good post. I remember reading your advice about how sign language helped Brayden so much. This was a major reason why I kept up with signing when I was growing tired of getting no response from Caleb. It was certainly worth it. Like Brayden, Caleb's frustration often stems from an inability to communicate. Now he often signs "help" when he needs me and he uses more signs than I can count. When I notice that he is getting consistently frustrated, I look at my consistency in required signs and teaching new signs. So often that's all I need to do to remedy the problem.Thanks for the good tips and helping keep some peace in our house!

  2. Shanna
    June 23, 2009 / 7:00 PM

    Love the website, you've helped in the past, I hope you can help again! My 6 month old daughter is sleep trained and sleeps beautifully from 7pm – 7am. But now that she's 6 months old, she's taking 4 one hour naps a day. It's like her naps got shorter, wake-times got longer, but she's still on an infant schedule. I would like her to go to 2 longer naps each day instead of so many little ones. Any suggestions on how to help her adjust?

  3. Plowmanators
    July 16, 2009 / 4:00 PM

    Becca, thanks for sharing! And you are welcome.

  4. Plowmanators
    July 16, 2009 / 4:01 PM

    Shanna, Your answer likely lies in waketime length. See the blog label "optimal waketime" on guidance for finding her optimal waketime length.

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