What to say when your child is frustrated or disappointed.

It’s very hard being a child. You have a lot of ambition but your body can’t keep up. You want to do many things that seem to be beyond your ability like dressing yourself, walking, running, getting that toy that’s in the washing machine, climbing the stairs, and so on. Other bothersome things are asking for what you want using your words and getting your grown up to do what you want. Sometimes they’re very strange. As far as you’re concerned, you’ve clearly said I want my teddy or Where’s my spoon? Or I don’t want to go in the buggy. Or I don’t want to go home yet. But they’re looking at you with a somewhat puzzled look on their face. You don’t get what you want. They try to stop you having fun by leaving the playground before you want to go. You get frustrated often. You cry. You scrunch up your face. You might even throw yourself on the floor and kick and hit. You want what you want and you want it right now. Yet you can’t have it. You demand, you insist, you whine, you try to wear your parents down. It’s very frustrating! For everyone! From our point of view, it’s a good thing that they’re not well co-ordinated so we can avoid the hits or kicks a lot of the time!


Frustration may be one of the most misunderstood emotions of our children. I know it’s so intense and can seem extreme from our point of view. Good news though, it does begin to abate between 5 – 7 years of age as their impulse control improves and they learn to use their words instead of their whole bodies. And they can say things like I kind of want to go to the party and I kind of don’t want to both at the same time.


Frustration is necessary for our children’s brain to develop and we do our children no favours when we try to bypass it or prevent it from happening. This was news to me too when I did a course on understanding pre-schoolers with The Neufeld Institute but I’m converted to the need for frustration now. Hear me out! I’m not saying it’s easy to handle or cope with but when you see it as a part of child development, it does take on a different meaning.


How about this for a different way of looking at frustration? Our children’s brain development depends on it. Frustration is a biological response that happens to us when something isn’t working for us. (This isn’t how I want it). Frustration is the feeling that arises when we encounter something that we cannot change (this is called futility). For example:  Mama says we have to leave the playground. And I can’t change her mind. Or The new baby is here and she’s not going away. I have to share my mama with her.


I’ve just finished reading Deborah MacNamara’s book on pre-schoolers called Rest, Play, Grow. She’s from the Neufeld faculty. And her book is like a mini version of the course I did. Our job is to help our children learn to accept limits and restrictions.  It’s not good for them when we bend to their will too much and give in. Sometimes it has to be a clear No with no room for negotiation. Life will give them plenty of Nos and if they’re not accustomed to hitting a limit, then they’re in for a shock. Helping them navigate futility prepares them better for life. It builds resilience and keeps them in right relationship with us. We’re the captains of the ship, not them. Remember Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory? I want it now!


What we need to work out, in the face of their tears, is when to change something for them and when to help them accept what they can’t change. (Logic won’t work. I learned this the day my 2 &1/2 year old was crying because she wanted the doll that was in the washing machine. In a very reasonable tone of voice I told her: You can’t have the doll. She’s in the washing machine. You can have her when the wash is over. What happened then? She kept crying! What eventually worked? When I remembered to acknowledge the feeling and said: You really want that dolly and you can’t have her. It’s hard when you can’t have what you want. The storm passed- amazing!


Deborah MacNamara says that frustration is the emotion of change. It makes us work hard at getting what we want or to change things that don’t work for us. We want to help our children learn to harness the power of this emotion so that they can make changes in more civilised and responsible ways. We need to help them realise that they can’t always get what they want and that they can survive things not going their way. To be able to do this, we need to respect their wants and wishes. It doesn’t mean we have to give into them all the time. It does mean that we respect their right to want what they want. Even if it is chocolate for breakfast or staying up late. This is an emotional process meaning logic or reason will not work. Why not? Because it’s an emotions issue and pre-schoolers in particular are all about feelings. Trying to talk them out of what they want in a reasonable manner generally fails because they’re unreasonable. They can only be unreasonable at this stage of development! We need to appeal to their soft little hearts and not their heads. They need to feel that they’re up against a wall. That Mama has said no and is not changing her mind. This needs to register in their hearts.


We then need to help them to hear our No and eventually accept it emotionally. Generally this involves tears. Tears are really important. As Gordon Neufeld says, healthy children are emotionally messy. They need to be moved to tears because this shows that they have felt the futility. They need to experience the dead end so that they can then find another way through. Mad needs to move to sad. So they feel mad when they hear the No and realise it’s a definite No and not We’ll see. Then, when they realise that it’s a definite, unchanging No, they’ll be moved to feel the sadness and disappointment that comes with futility. Being supported to feel feelings of sadness and disappointment about what they can’t change helps them become more resilient and resourceful. They don’t have to cry tears necessarily but you’d expect to see their eyes water at least. You want to help them adapt to the limits while preserving their spirit.


Here’s another interesting idea from Aletha Soleter of Aware Parenting: When children cry, the hurt has already happened. Crying is not the hurt but the process of being unhurt. Tears cried in sadness release toxins from the body. Oxytocin is also released and that inhibits the stress hormone cortisol. When our children cry and we comfort them, it also increases oxytocin and decreases stress hormones. It’s also important that we allow our sons to cry just as we allow our daughters to cry. When tears are not welcome, they can lead to aggression as the suppressed emotion has to come out somewhere.


Disappointment may be the most important emotion says Gordon Neufeld. Our children need a safe place to cry; one where they will not be talked out of their tears but supported through them so that they can become resourceful and resilient. They won’t get invited to every party. They won’t win every game. Fun times come to an end. It’s in being with them through these experiences that we kindly and compassionately prepare them for the bigger disappointments that life will bring. It’s our job not to be afraid of their tears. Sadness drains away frustration.


9 Things not to say:

# 1 Cut it out

# 2 Stop crying

# 3 Why are you crying?

# 4 If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about (from many an Irish childhood!)

# 5 Calm down

# 6 Control yourself

# 7 Pull yourself together

# 8 Stop doing that.

# 9 Don’t be such a cry baby.


Frustration and tears are our child’s clearest signal to us that they need our help. They cannot control themselves. Sometimes it seems like something really trivial has set off a very intense reaction in them. It could be something as little as a stubbed toe, a misplaced toy. Tears lie waiting to be expressed and we need to come alongside them to help them flow.

What to say and do when your child is experiencing frustration and disappointment:

This is going to depend on your child’s age and language level and you’ll need to work out what feels natural to you and your relationship with your child. So for a toddler, you might say something like ‘Grrr. Mad baby’ or ‘You’re not happy about that’ or ‘You don’t want to go to the café. You want to go home’. For older children it might be something like:

  • Oh my goodness! Something’s not working for you.
  • This isn’t going the way you want.
  • Something’s not going your way.
  • I can see you’re frustrated and it needs to come out and this is not the way to do it. (This would be where the behaviour is not acceptable like kicking or pinching)
  • You have hits in you. Let’s help you get the hits out.
  • It’s hard isn’t it?


In order for our children to really feel the futility of the situation, we need to close the door to change, for example, by saying something like: Mama said no. This is what’s happening. It’s time to go to bed. The child realises there’s nothing left to do but cry. You say: This is what you wanted. Mummy said no. Daddy said no. But this is not what you wanted. It makes you very sad. We need to come alongside them physically and hold them and maybe rub their back and say nothing for a moment or two.


Some more ideas for what to say:

  • I see you’re frustrated. Something isn’t working for you. That frustration needs to come out. Here, let me help you find a way.
  • I’m sorry sweetheart, it’s just the way it is. I’m not prepared to do that right now. That’s what I’ve decided.
  • That’s part of being a person. This is nothing bad. This is normal. I’m not worried.
  • Those are very big feelings. I know.
  • Show me how mad you feel. You can get some paper and crayons and let them scribble or poke holes in the paper to let the mad feelings out.

Not always easy to remember this but it’s totally worth it!

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