Frustration seems to go hand-in-hand with being a toddler 🙃 While your toddler may be eager to try more complex tasks, their skills don’t always match their ambitions. This can lead to frustration and giving up, crying, or throwing things.
“While difficult to watch, these feelings are healthy signs of your child’s wish to understand and control their environment,” says Jennifer Weeks, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist and child development expert.
Learning to work through some of these challenges now can pay off down the road. A study by researchers at the National Institute of Health found persistence in tasks at 12 months predicted better scores on cognitive tests at 30 months.
Here are 11 ways to help your toddler learn to tolerate frustration and overcome obstacles.
1. Slow down to demonstrate figuring things out.
When playing alongside your toddler or introducing a new toy, pretend to spend about 30 seconds “figuring it out.” Slow your movements and narrate what you’re thinking and doing: “Oh wow! This is an interesting box. I see it has a lid, a base, and a slot. I wonder if this lid comes off … nope, not really. Do you think this coin goes in the slot? It looks to be about the same size…”. Watching you “stick it out” with a tricky task will encourage them to do the same.
2. Fail and try again.
Allow your toddler to see you attempting an activity, failing, and talking yourself through trying again. While playing with blocks, try stacking a few off balance so they fall. Notice aloud what went wrong and continue to narrate as you move slowly to carefully stack the blocks again.
3. Name your feelings and model calming strategies.
Everyone feels sad, frustrated, or discouraged at times. When you identify and name these feelings in yourself, you provide your toddler with language and an important point of reference to start understanding their own feelings. While children typically won’t identify emotions until about 3 years old, you can build an important foundation by showing your child that sadness and frustration are okay and can be worked through together.
4. Offer your toddler activities in the “sweet spot” of difficulty.
While your child may happily choose toys they can solve quickly, research suggests young toddlers are most likely to want to persist with an activity until completed when a toy takes them about 1 minute to figure out. If you notice your toddler completing a puzzle in 30 seconds or less, for example, they’re likely ready for a new challenge to continue to build their fine motor and spatial awareness skills.
5. Allow productive struggle.
If your child is troubleshooting peacefully, observe quietly. This sounds simple, but it can take enormous restraint not to point out that the cube goes in the square cutout or the cup needs to be adjusted so the drawer will close. “Your goal as a parent or caregiver isn’t to prevent frustration,” says Weeks.
6. Give responsive feedback.
Responsive parenting simply means noticing and acting on your child’s interests, body language, and communication, both verbal and nonverbal. The next time you begin to see signs of low frustration tolerance, take your toddler’s perspective and describe their actions and feelings out loud: “You tried to put the carrot in the hole sideways and it didn’t fit. You seem frustrated.” Also known as sportscasting, this method of responsive feedback acknowledges what’s happening factually, without judging or trying to fix anything.
7. Encourage your toddler to try a new strategy.
When your child asks for help, is about to quit, or otherwise seems to need support, offer hints to help them expand their thinking. You might ask or say:
“Do you want to try it a different way?”
“What do you think would happen if you pulled the green handle?”
“I wonder if you turned the coin whether it might fit in the slot.”
8. Prepare the environment to support your child’s independence.
“Help me to do it alone,” is a phrase that reflects your child’s inner needs, said Maria Montessori. Set up low shelves for independent access to toys and activities, and define clear areas and containers for playthings. This not only creates calm and order within your child’s space, but also helps to avoid overwhelm when cleaning up together.
9. Offer fewer options or materials.
Limit choices throughout your child’s day. Rather than opening a drawer full of shirts and asking your toddler to pick their favorite, select just two, and have your child choose from those.
Similarly, try presenting fewer materials when introducing a toy. For example, give your toddler one or two rings when introducing a ring stacker.
10. Encourage repetition and experimentation.
Lovevery Play Kits arrive at the beginning of your child’s readiness for the included toys. Your toddler will likely return to them many times before mastering each activity, which is exactly the intention 😊 Each opportunity for repetition and experimentation deepens their understanding, allows them to try different solutions, and naturally stretches their ability to work past prior frustration points.
11. Point out your toddler’s persistence and efforts.
Recognize and name the value of persistence even when mastery is not immediate:
“Wow, you were very focused working on the coin box today.”
“You kept trying even when you felt frustrated.”
“It used to be hard to stack the rings on the post, but you kept practicing, and today you stacked three!” Pointing out persistence and incremental improvement helps your toddler focus on their progress.
Learn more about the research
Duckworth, A., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Self-Control and Grit: Related but Separable Determinants of Success. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(5), 319–325.
Messer, D. J., McCarthy, M. E., McQuiston, S., MacTurk, R. H., Yarrow, L. J., & Vietze, P. M. (1986). Relation between mastery behavior in infancy and competence in early childhood. Developmental Psychology, 22(3), 366–372.
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