How to Help Your Toddler Through Their Frustration

I received a question from a parent who was struggling with how to help her 2 year old daughter through her frustration.  She realized she was being either too abrupt in helping her, or too lenient, and wanted a middle-ground approach.

I love this question because it is so common for many parents, and the answer can be applied to many areas of our lives!

As parents, our reactions to our children color their experience of the world.  For children, an inconsistent approach can cause anxiety, stress, and the very frustrations we are trying to avoid.

Understanding Yourself

When we consistently respond with either a triggered response (i.e an abrupt, harsh, yelling, or physical response) or a laissez-faire response (aka giving in to the emotional stress and basically saying f-it), it can usually be traced back to the family environment we grew up in as children.

If you grew up with parents that were addicts, were emotionally abusive or neglectful, or who did not have healthy coping skills, chances are you probably struggle with all-or-none thinking.
- Stephanie Aberlich

If you grew up with parents that were addicts, were emotionally abusive or neglectful, or who did not have healthy coping skills, chances are you probably struggle with all-or-none thinking.

All-or-none thinking is thinking that says situations are either all good, or all bad.  There's no room for experiences to be somewhere in the middle.  And it ends up affecting your response to situations throughout your life if you aren’t aware of this programming.

A book that has been profound in helping people who struggle with this all-or-none thinking is Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics By: Herbert L. Gravitz & Julie D. Bowden.

Your parents didn’t have to be obvious alcoholics to benefit from this book.  They could be children of alcoholics themselves, they could have taken care of your basic needs but been emotionally distant, they could have been closeted addicts, or have struggled with anxiety or depression.

Understanding Your Children

Frustration and difficult emotions is normal in children because, well, they’re human.

We humans get frustrated when things are hard, when we aren’t respected, when we’re ignored, or our needs aren’t met.

Realistically, the majority of toddler frustration and subsequent “temper tantrums” are unnecessarily caused by us adults.

Often we aren’t aware of or meeting their needs for some reason (learn about C.H.A.T and your child's needs), we are not allowing them choices in their day or a level of independence that is developmentally appropriate, or we aren’t respecting their body autonomy.

You’d get frustrated too, and chances are you did because it’s likely this happened to you as a child as well.

Breaking Cycles

It’s important to note that as children get older and their emotions become more pronounced, parents who have a history of emotional neglect or abuse will find themselves being triggered more often.

This is because you never learned how important emotions were, or how to handle them in a productive and healthy way.  You were probably either denied your emotions and told not to feel them, ignored, coddled well beyond your developmental needs, or both.

So dealing with emotions feels just as scary to you as it feels to your child.

And instead of knowing how to deal and therefore being able to help guide your child, you feel overwhelmed and unprepared.

This isn’t your fault, nor is it your parents.  They likely edured the same or worse as children.

But it’s important to understand so you can break the cycle for your children.

Building Connections

So how do you bridge the gap between your unmet needs as a child and subsequent difficulty with strong emotions, and being able to show healthy coping skills for your child?

1. Name & Validate Emotions

Emotions are a truly wonderful part of being human, if we use them correctly.  They are meant to move through us, not get stuck in our bodies.

Shaming emotions, ignoring emotions or encouraging children to deny their emotions will all lead to the same outcome - emotions getting trapped in their bodies.

Shaming emotions, ignoring emotions or encouraging children to deny their emotions will all lead to the same outcome - emotions getting trapped in their bodies.
- Stephanie Aberlich

And emotions that get trapped over and over for years and years turn into illness and dis-ease.  For their future health & wellbeing, we want to avoid this.

So start with naming and validating your child's emotion.  This helps them understand that having emotions is just a part of being human, that they are safe to express themselves, and gives them tools to be able to name their emotions later on.

If they become physical when frustrated, it's important to use gentle boundaries to keep everyone safe.

2. Offer Comfort

Our children are just like us, they may want comfort when they are upset, or they may really want to be alone.  So ask them what they need and be there as they release their emotions.  Do this just as you would for a friend who is upset or frustrated.

3. Model Healthy Coping Skills

Modeling is the most effective tool in helping your children become the amazing, fulfilled, healthy people you want them to become.

We are literally their example for what is "normal" and for how to live life.

But modeling healthy coping skills when we feel like we have none is rough, so there's a very simple and quick thing you can start doing right away.

Take a deep breath and count backwards from 5 to 1.  Yes, that's it.

It's called the 5 Second Rule, and using it is a powerful tool to help you start to regulate your own emotions or triggers that pop up when your children are frustrated.

4. Introduce Mindfulness

If your child has felt their emotions, you've validated them and comforted them, but after an extended period of time (only you know what this is for your child) they still can not move past it, then it's time to introduce some mindfulness techniques.

Teaching them the 5 Second Rule, helping them by encouraging deep breaths, or making a meditation jar are great places to start.

Awareness Over Perfection

Responding mindfully 100% of the time is not necessary, or possible.  You are human too, and human beings were not made to be perfect.  So don't beat yourself up when you respond in your "old" ways every once in a while.  This is inevitable.  This is a practice.  It's like a muscle, it will take time to build it up.

Tell Your Story

Have you found a middle-ground approach to helping your child with their frustrations that works for your family?  What other tips would you give parents for working through their own triggers, or validating their children's emotions?  Share your story & wisdom with the In Harmony Village in the comments.

With Harmony,

Stevie

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