HOW CHILDREN HANDLE FRUSTRATION
by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
"How do I get my young child to tolerate frustration? Even a little
frustration upsets him, and as a result, he frequently acts out and misbehaves.
What can I say or do to encourage my child to become more patient and less
demanding of immediate attention?"
Many parents voice these concerns. In fact, frustrating situations occur frequently
throughout our lives—in school, work, friendships, marriage, and even
our relationship with our own self. Frustration is a normal part of life. But
it must not be allowed to gain the upper hand. It is imperative we be able
to tolerate and to cope effectively with stress and frustration if we wish
to have a successful and satisfying life.
The ability to handle frustration
is developed during the early years of life. This is essential if children
are to cease acting out impulsively and to begin behaving in a more socially
A young child cannot be told or taught how to tolerate stress
and frustration. The child acquires this skill over time. It happens as a result
of two interdependent processes that involve how parents meet their child’s
physical and psychosocial needs.
First, the child’s basic physical requisites must be responsively and
appropriately met from conception through six to eight years of age. The hunger
and nutritional requirements of infants and young children should be met upon
request or every two or three hours through the early years of life. Young
children also demand daily opportunities for vigorous play to exercise their
growing bone and tissue. In addition, they require time for sleep and rest.
It is important for parents to fulfill all of these physical needs. If these
needs are not satisfied, young children will cry, misbehave, and make it evident
their developmentally appropriate needs have not been met.
in early infancy, the child’s psychosocial needs must
be met. Infants and young children must be able to trust that appropriate love,
attention, affection, and recognition will be theirs. This trust is the result
of consistently dependable, responsive parenting during the first years of life.
Secure in the learned trust that his or her parents will be there to provide,
the unthreatened child is able to experience new emotional ground.
Frustration Can Turn to Fear and Lead to Misbehavior
Let’s examine how frustration initially takes root in a child. The more a child’s fundamental needs go unmet, and the more he or she has to clamor to get them met from the outside world, the weaker will be that child’s personal sense of well-being and inner emotional strength. Instead, a profound and persistent fright grows within the child.
This fear develops when the child realizes the people on whom he or she must
depend are not fully trustworthy. This learned fear, which can be overwhelming,
places the child on guard. The child adopts a characteristic emotional attitude
of anxious concern. Although not yet able to verbalize this fear, the young
child’s eyes, posture, tenseness, and behavior communicate it: “How soon will I have to announce another unmet need? Will someone be there to help me? How long will I have to wait?”
Because it takes so long to get a response to his or her legitimate wants,
the anxious youngster realizes it is best not to wait to experience the first
slight feeling of a need. Instead, the child learns the best self-defense is
to take an offensive stance. As a result, at the first hint of frustration,
the child becomes more demanding. When these new demands are not met, the child’s
untrusting, fear-based nature becomes increasingly inflexible.
A constant state of anxiousness and defensiveness, born of unmet needs, erodes
all prospects for developing the ability to tolerate frustration. From the
child’s point of view, it is too risky to let down his or her guard to
endure, even for a short while, the frustration of an unmet need. This is one
of the origins of what has come to be called “a spoiled child.”
trusting primary relationship makes all the difference. If a child experiences
mild and brief periods of stress within the context of an established trusting
relationship, the accompanying anxiety will not scare the child. Having that
mildly frustrated need met actually serves to revalidate the child’s trust.
As long as the parent’s behavior remains predictable, the felt frustration,
although uncomfortable, will not produce fear in the child. Without fear, a child
learns to tolerate periods of discomfort at times of unmet needs. However, a
child who is anxious or afraid cannot learn much of anything, except to remain
The Role of Play in the Development of the Sense of Self
From early infancy, every child should have exploratory and play opportunities
that are of intrinsic interest and provide appropriately increasing levels
of challenge. Within the realm of play, the child encounters many opportunities
that help to build his or her ability to handle frustration. Consider the example
of infant Kim.
The parents of Kim place a rattle in her crib. When they do this, two strong
emotions simultaneously arise. On the one hand, Kim feels a powerful excitement
and desire to have the toy. At the same time, she feels distress: wanting the
toy but not having it creates both excitement and frustration. Which of these
feelings will influence her behavior more strongly depends on whether Kim has
experienced parental love and affection since birth. If she feels secure and
trusting, she will not be automatically overwhelmed by frustration. She will
pursue her excitement and reach for the desired rattle. In this way, she learns
it is possible to overcome any anxiety and achieve her goal. Over time, each
seemingly small incident of successful self-advocacy builds within her a budding
sense of self-confidence. Kim learns she can want a toy, surmount the frustrated
feelings of wanting but not having it, and by her own efforts get the toy she
When Kim is six months old, she begins to crawl. One day she is sitting on the
floor and notices a desired rubber elephant about eight feet way. When she looks
at the toy she wants, the two familiar emotions well up within her. Once again,
she feels excitement combined with anxiety and frustration. However, this time
the toy is not near enough for her to readily grasp it. This presents a new level
of challenge. Although fairly confident in her ability to reach and grasp, she
is new to the more complex skills involved in getting a toy by crawling. With
courage rooted in her brief history of building self-trust, she crawls a bit
awkwardly at first toward the toy. Excitement and frustration ever present, she
crawls closer, her eyes intently on the toy. When she reaches her goal, she is
happy and satisfied. She puts the elephant to her mouth.
Of equal importance to Kim’s happiness is the significant lesson she
has taught herself about her own abilities. She was able, once again, to tolerate
her initial anxiety and frustration. Through her efforts, she overcame those
feelings and achieved a goal that was important to her. She gained self-confidence
in her ability to use a new skill. She gave herself one more bit of evidence
that she can endure frustration by trusting in herself. Self-trust and the
ability to withstand increasing amounts of stress are the products of many
similar, small, intrinsically motivated efforts by which the child achieves
As they watched, Kim’s parents may not have suspected
the importance of what was happening. Neither did Kim. A youngster becomes
flexible and strong, or rigid and weak, without even knowing it is happening.
However, though they may not be able to name it, both parents and children
painfully so—when children show they cannot positively cope with frustrations
A child’s secure sense of self allows him or her to tolerate
frustration. Parents play an important role in fostering the child’s sense
of security. One way to do this is by granting the child sufficient independence.
Some parents, albeit with the best of intentions, intercede continuously in
their youngster’s every act. For example, unlike Kim’s parents,
Jose’s parents do not allow their young son to crawl toward a toy several
feet away on the floor. Upon recognizing Jose’s interest, they immediately
pick up the toy and take it to him. These parents consistently impose themselves
on their child, thus preventing him from engaging with the toy. Instead of
learning to tolerate frustration, he becomes angry.
Although all infants and
young children need to be held and physically loved, Jose’s parents hold
him even when he wants to move freely. They mechanically rock and bounce him
in their arms. They continuously hover over or around him. As he grows older,
they constantly interject themselves and their ideas on him. His parents talk
at Jose, insistently offer him food, suggest what he should do next, and repeatedly
adjust his hair and clothing. As a result, young Jose feels overwhelmed.
hovering and invasive, intrusive, and manipulative parenting behaviors cause
a youngster to withdraw emotionally for protection. The young child’s
sense of self is not allowed free expression and uninterrupted development. As
a result, this child’s sense of self-advocacy is not put into practice.
Instead of gradually becoming emotionally stronger and more capable of facing
and handling frustrations, the youngster remains weak. The child develops a self-concept
that is based on an inability to tolerate life’s ambiguities or changes.
This weakness manifests behaviorally in an insecure, inflexible dependency.
When Jose is three- or four-years-old, he may exhibit an active, fear-based
protest when expected to share and behave more independently. He may demand
the constant involvement of his parents. He may become upset when his parent
cooks dinner, talks on the telephone, speaks to another person, or in any way
draws attention away from him. These behaviors indicate Jose has not developed
the self-confidence necessary to be slightly independent and tolerate frustration.
This is another way in which a “spoiled child” can develop.
The Art of Parenting
The art of parenting, in some ways, is like the art of educating. Of consequence
for both roles is learning how children grow and develop. Equally important
is knowing the individual child’s style, talents, interests, needs, tolerances,
abilities, and so on. As their youngster grows and develops, parents must listen
continuously with all their senses to understand the child. As a result, they
can do a better job of child rearing. They will know how and when their young
child is ready to have a physical need met or to have an intrinsic interest
developed, extended, or elaborated. These parents monitor and adjust the kinds
and amounts of novel and possibly frustrating challenges and stimulations so
their child can handle them confidently and competently.
A parent who is educated
about early childhood development and the unique makeup of his or her young
child is aware, for example, that the child becomes more stressed and tired
than usual when exposed to certain circumstances. Responding to this, the parent
will provide additional opportunities for rest.
Parents cannot be perfect,
nor should they be. All children will become too tired from time to time. Sometimes
they will not get the food they need when they need it. Their requirements
for loving attention occasionally will be ignored. These children will feel
thwarted when their requisites are not met. Nevertheless, if the frustration
is not too severe or too lengthy, and if it occurs within the context of an
otherwise need-satisfied life upon which they have learned to depend, no harm
will come to these children.
Problems for the child, and for the parent, derive from regularly ignoring
one or more developmentally normal physical or psychosocial need. Facing a
consistent pattern of inadequate parental responsiveness, the child will become
anxious, on edge, and wary. For such a child, the tolerance of frustration
is a personal threat that mandates not letting down his or her guard. Instead,
the child learns to voice needs through attention-seeking misbehavior.
parents discipline the misbehavior of their young child by setting strict limits.
When a youngster continues to act out, the parent institutes harsh punishment.
These parents set unrealistic expectations for their child. They withhold love
and attention. By failing to understand that childhood behaviors, both good and
bad, are determined by the status of underlying physical and psychosocial needs,
these parents unwittingly add frustration to their child’s life. These
strategies only further convince young children to announce their unmet needs
actively and aggressively through their misbehavior.
Understandably, parents and
other adults find the misbehavior of young children unpleasant. However, the
cries of an infant and the misbehavior of a toddler or young child are healthy
and honest responses. These behaviors are a child’s
signals and signs. They are symptoms. They indicate that one or more normal physical
and/or psychosocial developmental need has not been met and is causing the child
Many parents feel relief when a child, out of despair, finally stops crying
or misbehaving and becomes quiet. These parents enjoy the peace and may even
feel satisfied with their parenting abilities. They have little idea how much
psychological damage has occurred.
Parent-child interaction patterns established
in the first years of life tend to remain stable. Both a child’s ability
to withstand stress and the way he or she reacts to frustrating situations
have formed a definite pattern by six years of age. Nevertheless, the opportunity
exists for helping a child tolerate frustration better and cope with it more
positively. The key is a change in parental child-rearing patterns that is
based on an empirically supported understanding of child development. This
knowledge, coupled with competent guidance about how to apply it to a particular
child, can correct or reduce the ill effects of previous parenting practices.
The earlier this change takes place in a child’s life,
the more effective it will be.
An earlier version of this article was published in New Beginnings, 1994,