Frustration hits and toddlers and preschoolers often dissolve. They wanted red cups; you gave them the blue. The pony tail is not high enough, or low enough. You cut the peanut butter sandwich in triangles; they wanted squares.
The thing about frustration at this age is that, even if you try to give them what they said they wanted, the crying, the frowning, the screaming and sometimes the kicking and the hitting keep going. It’s as if the children have fallen off a bridge into a gorge. The right cup or another sandwich doesn’t bring them out of the gorge, it just makes them madder that they fell into it in the first place.
The difference between skilled parents and struggling ones is their ability to keep their heads and their patience in these situations. If you are not going to get dragged down into the gorge yourself, you need to first remember that this is no fun for the children, either.
Even after they realize that there is no red cup in the car, they need help learning how to collect themselves and deal with the physical sensations that come with rage.
One of the most important things we teach our children during the preschool years is how to self-soothe and change despair into problem solving. If we are mindful, we can teach them how to get our help without driving us away. We can teach them how to accept a compromise and feel supported instead of cheated. To do that we need to take the long view. Not all the teaching happens at the moment of the meltdown.
To keep calm when children are falling apart, you need to remember they are not trying to do something to you. They are trying to do something for themselves. They may say they hate you. But they are mad about the cup and the feeling of frustration.
If you take a 3-year-old’s harangue personally, you are going to be much less able to deal with it. Your child does not hate you. You are not a stupid mommy or daddy.
The problem is not that you did not have the foresight to pack a red cup, or make life frustration free. The problem is that your child is stuck with a feeling and no skills to deal with it. Young children lack experience to put the situation in perspective or enough logical reasoning power at that moment to figure a way out.
First, they do not know how to calm down.
Second, they can’t spontaneously decide to just let the issue go without a conversation and they are not able to listen and have a conversation at that moment.
Third, they do not have the strategy yet of making do with a substitute comfort, or making a plan to avoid the frustration next time. They need your help and, unless you can keep some distance from your irritation, embarrassment, fatigue or defensiveness, you are not going to be able to give it to them.
Focus on calming and moving on, not on appeasing. Some children calm in a parent’s arms, others need to be isolated until they stop raging. Some children are best calmed with distraction and a change of location. It often helps to change adults.
Don’t keep saying the same things. The more you argue or try to be reasonable, the more they oppose and the louder and more frustrated you probably will become. Sympathize with the problem authentically and then focus on what can happen once they calm down: “I know you really wanted the other cup. It is dirty. Let’s hurry and eat breakfast so we have time to read a book.”
When calmness is achieved, offer problem-solving choices. Ask, “What will help you feel better?” If the child has no idea, suggest a hug, a snack, a change of scene, a call to grandma or a toy.
When children are not angry, teach them some body-calming games. Have them squeeze their hands tight and then let them loose, or shake their arms so that they look like soft spaghetti. Often children breathe too fast when they are trying to calm down. Play “balloon,” breathing in slowly until the tummy expands into a balloon shape, then slowly blowing out.
Think together about how to avoid frustration in the future. Say something like, “We had a big problem about the cup this morning. Let’s make a plan so that you are not so unhappy tomorrow.” Involve the child in the problem solving. If the child can’t make a reasonable plan, offer some choices: “I could pick you up and let you choose your own cup from the shelf” or “If you don’t like the cup you get, you can choose a plate you like and that will help you feel better.”
When you think about it, frustration is a life-long challenge. Just as we all have a learning style, we each have our own “dealing with it” style. Some adults model exploding, crying or blaming others and their children don’t see other strategies at home. Ultimately, for little ones and their parents, the most helpful and productive approach is to calm oneself and say to oneself or others, “This is a problem.” And then begin to think about how to approach it. Some choices are: move on and let it go, ask for help, make a plan for next time, find a way to be satisfied with a compromise or take a break and go back to the task later.