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).

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


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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.

How to respond to a frustration tantrum pinnable image

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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valplowman
valplowman

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 Babywise.life, 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.

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4 Comments

  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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