Little people have big feelings. Some of the biggest and hardest for both parents and children are feelings of frustration. While difficult to experience and witness, expressing frustration allows children to work through a range of emotions and learn more about themselves and other people. Additionally, the ability to identify and express feelings is linked to fewer behavior problems and positive self-image.
Offering age-appropriate guidance to help children identify, work through, and resolve frustration is important for social and emotional development and begins to build skills for success in relationships, school and life. Here, we look at how and why typically-developing children from birth to age five express frustrations — and offer ideas to help them manage it:
Ages 0-1: From fussing to full-blown frustration, infants express themselves to let you know their needs, from needing to be fed or changed to physical comfort and attention. Because babies have little sense of time, they do not understand that their discomfort won’t last forever, and may be terrified by their own frustration. Promptly attending to a baby when they are upset can help resolve frustration fast, and teach them that they are safe. Babies under the age of one do not have the developmental ability to understand that they may be annoying or frustrating; dismissing and ignoring them, or expressing your own frustration with an infant is scary for them and doesn’t help change behavior. Instead, offering encouragement and praise reinforces positive behaviors and helps them feel safe — which can help them learn to take frustration in stride.
Ages 1-2: While able to express a broader range of needs and desires, toddlers have difficulty regulating their often intense emotions. Their frustration can help them to assert themselves or keep working through difficult tasks, but they can easily become overwhelmed. Staying calm, asking them to identify feelings (and taking them seriously), and teaching toddlers to use words instead of aggression help them feel safe. (If they are too overwhelmed to hear you, removing toddlers from the situation is helpful.) Because toddlers begin to want more control over their lives, allowing them to make choices (such as for snacks or clothing) can help manage frustration. Toddlers are more likely to become frustrated when they are idle for long periods; providing lots of learning and play activities will help lower frustration. At this age, children imitate adults in their lives — parents can model how to express emotions and handle disagreements with calm compassion.
Ages 3-5: Now possessing fuller vocabularies, preschoolers understand that words have power and may resort to name-calling and yelling at each other when they are frustrated or angry. However, they often do not fully understand the effects of their words on others’ feelings. It is important to teach children how their words and actions can hurt by imagining if someone had done the same to them. Preschoolers understand the concept of fairness and can become frustrated and angry to the point of acting out physically if they feel that they have been treated unfairly — a sibling got a larger piece of cake, for example. Talking through these emotions, validating feelings, and coming up with ways to manage them can give your child the tools to move through frustrating situations.