Frustration: Young Children & Emotions

This post is the first emotion specific post in a series of posts that I am writing about supporting children under age 5 in learning about and coping with their emotions.    You can read the introduction to this series here.   Frustration is the first emotion addressed in this series as it is the most common emotion parents ask me about when they have children in this age group.

Frustration is the word I have chosen to use for this post, but you may use a different word to describe this same experience.  Angry.  Mad.  Irritable.  Melt down.  Outburst.  What other words do you use?

What does your child say or do when feeling frustrated?

A frustrated child may scream, kick, hit, cry, bite, slam doors, throw objects, shove others, say hurtful words and more.  It is important to remember that these behaviors are often very age appropriate and normal as young children feel their emotions very intensely, do not have as much impulse control as we do and haven’t learned how to manage their frustration in other ways yet.

Even though we know the behaviors I described above are age appropriate, it can still  be very overwhelming to see our children demonstrate them.  We want to help our children get through their frustration, but often times it may appear that nothing we do makes a difference when our child is in full meltdown mode.   It may even trigger our own feelings of frustration, which is very normal.   As adults, we need to try to be as mindful as possible about our own response, so that we don’t escalate the situation further by contributing in an unhelpful way.

It is also important to be open to to the idea that behaviors that appear to be an expression of frustration may in fact be an expression of another underlying emotion.   Anxiety, sadness, loneliness and more can at times manifest themselves in ways that appear to be frustration.

How can I help my child through frustration?

Before your child is frustrated:

  • Focus on creating an environment where your child feels comfortable sharing their emotions.  In general, I find that children who are encouraged to talk about emotions feel more comfortable asking for help when they feel frustrated. This previous post about building your child’s feelings vocabulary may be helpful.
  • Teach your child about frustration when they are in good spirits.  It is very difficult for any of us to listen when we are upset.   We better able to absorb information and skills when we are calm.  Normalize feeling frustrated and talk about healthy ways to cope with frustration.   Share an appropriate examples of a time that you were frustrated and how you dealt with that frustration.   

In the moment:

  • Try to catch your child’s frustration early.   The more escalated the child is the harder it is to intervene.   Sometimes we just can’t see the frustration coming on and it seems like it comes out of no where. Other times if we slow down and pay attention we can notice little signs of frustration building.
  • Help your children label their emotion in the moment.   Assess how much your child is able to talk through what has upset them.    If your child is in a good place to process their frustration, support him or her in doing so and brainstorming how they would like to address the frustration.
  • If your child is already very upset avoid too much talking.   Focus instead on helping your child calm down.  Your child will be better able to process what upset them after they have been given the opportunity to calm down.
  • Guide your child through a coping or calming strategy.  Offer them two choices.  Focus on strategies that you have practiced and know work for your child.   It is key to be with your child and support them through this process.    Check out this previous post if you would like some examples of possible coping strategies for children.
  • Reflect back on the situation and try to identify triggers for the child’s frustration. Consider if there are things that you would like to do differently in the future to help your child address the trigger.

What other tips do you have for helping children under 5 cope with frustration?   Feel free to share your tip in the comments below.

Check back soon for the next post in this series.   Feel free to leave me a comment letting me know what other emotions you hope I will address.


If you are in the Eagan, Minnesota area and would like to have some hands on support in implementing some of the above strategies, you may want to consider the upcoming Emotions & Me psychoeducational group for children ages 2-5 and a caregiver.   During each session of this four week group we will focus on exploring one emotion and age-appropriate ways to express and cope with that emotion.   Frustration is one of the emotions on the agenda.

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