Turn That Frown Upside Down
by Dr. Maureen O’Brien
Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2020
If you are dealing with a cranky toddler these days, you may not want to hear this: Frustration is actually a good thing. That’s correct. When your two year old knocks over her blocks on purpose because her tower isn’t right, it feels negative. And the emotion behind it may, in part, be negative. But on the flip side, your little one’s frustration reveals a deeper truth: she has set a goal, is trying to achieve it, recognizes when it’s not going well, and responds. That’s pretty sophisticated thinking going on behind those adorable bangs!
Not only is it a sign of growth that she can juggle all of those steps in her brain, but it is also a sign that you can communicate with her in more complex ways. OK, maybe not in that EXACT moment. Frustration is a mix of cognitive abilities and emotion, after all. And right now, the emotion is overriding everything. Sometimes your child is merely signaling that they need a hug. Or a snack. Or a nap. All are legitimate toddler needs which she may be expressing through her behavior, especially if her vocabulary may be limited.
But, if you’re feeling like you’d like to address it, you might want to say something like, “Oh, no! I can see you are really upset. You even knocked over your tower.” (naming her emotion) Don’t stop there. Continue with, “That’s too bad. I liked it.” (validating her effort) “Hmmm. I wonder if we can try again.” (aiming for persistence) While this approach won’t work every time, it accomplishes a few key goals. You’ve given your toddler something to think about. You’ve reacted calmly and with empathy. And you’ve suggested a solution that offers some help.
All of these strategies are ways to teach your child that when things fall apart, there is room for not only an emotional reaction, but also a pathway to repair. This is a lesson that 1, 2 and 3 year olds will need to learn over and over as they try to master new skills that may very well be beyond their reach. They need their caregivers at their side to both cheer them on and to acknowledge that it’s hard to fail. Maybe knowing that frustration actually shows an advance in thinking will make the situation a bit easier the next time your sweet child has a meltdown. One can hope, right?