New This Week: The Specifics on How Much Frustration to Allow Your Baby to Feel

Dr. Corinne Masur

A reader of this blog suggested to me that it would be helpful for parents of young children if we were more specific – particularly about such things as when to help our children and when to wait and see whether they are capable of doing certain things themselves. In the spirit of specifics, we present:
A Guide to Raising Competent and Confident Children by Allowing Them to Experience Frustration

* 0 – 2 months: At this age you simply CANNOT spoil your child. Pick them up whenever they cry. Wear them in a sling or a carrier if you feel comfortable doing so. Feed them whenever you think they are hungry. The newborn does not have the capacity to delay gratification and you should not expect them to. Now, this does not mean that if you are in the shower or on the toilet you have jump out immediately and run to the baby if he or she cries. But it does mean that you should try to get there as soon as you can – i.e., within a minute or two or three.

* 3 – 6 months: Babies of this age are beginning to develop what is called “confidant expectation.” That means, by virtue of having been fed and cuddled when needed for the first few months of life, they are beginning to know that this will happen again if they cry. As a result, they can wait a few more minutes for feedings once they start to show that they are hungry. Around 4 to 5 months of age they also can be encouraged to try to reach for a toy, placed on their bellies for “tummy time” and encouraged to keep at it for two or three minutes after they start fussing. They do not need to be attended to at the exact moment they become unhappy anymore. They can tolerate a little bit of frustration and they will be helped to tolerate more if you let them fuss for a few minutes before giving them the toy or the breast/bottle or picking them up from their bellies.

* 6 – 12 months: Babies of this age are beginning the “practicing phase” according to Dr. Margaret Mahler. They will start to love trying new motoric activities. They will do the same thing over and over and over in order to master it and they will derive pleasure from doing so. This is a delightful time. Often they can fall without crying and pull themselves right back up again. However, it is still important to rescue your baby if he or she gets stuck doing something adventuresome (like standing up) and can’t quite figure out how to get out of the predicament, or if they fall and cry due to hurt – or humiliation. At this age you can expect your child to do a little more and to withstand a few minutes of frustration, but they still need plenty of soothing and comforting when hungry or tired or sick or when they receive a bump. It is very helpful to name their feelings – “oh that hurt!” or “that was really hard!” as they are developing receptive language at this age and will be better at recognizing their own feelings if you start to verbalize the feelings early on.

* 1 – 2 years: At around a year old, babies start to turn into toddlers. They may be able to move themselves around – whether by army crawl or crawling or, in some cases, walking. They will love to do these things and will beg you to help them. There are some things – like walking with fingers – that they just cannot do by themselves and they will need you there to do it with them. It is hard to be patient throughout his process – but remember: they are excited about learning new skills and they are internally driven to practice their new skills!

As for other matters – eating for example, the toddler is often very hungry, very suddenly. All of her motor activity leads to a need for frequent intake of calories. So while she can wait longer for gratification than when she was a newborn, it is important to always have a bottle/breast and snack with you. When at home, a couple of snacks in the morning and the afternoon in-between breakfast, lunch and dinner is normal and it is best not to wait too long before providing it if you want an even tempered toddler! On the other hand, it is advisable to start to try to recognize the signs your child shows of being hungry, and to encourage him to ask for food when he is. You do not need to offer food constantly – and it is helpful if you can set a schedule for eating – for example: breakfast, a snack 2 hours later, lunch, a snack two hours later, another snack after nap, dinner, and a snack before bed as necessary. As you move into toddler years, watch your child for signs of hunger and let him/her tell you (in one way or another) when food is needed

When it comes to activities, you can ask the 1 or 1.5 year old to try things him/herself. When doing a simple puzzle or other play activity, it’s helpful to sit back a little to watch the play rather than jumping in to help immediately. If you do this often, you will get to know when your child is just a little frustrated but can continue and when your child is getting TOO frustrated. At that point, by all means, jump in with soothing words – “It’s OK, this is HARD! I’ll help” or “It’s OK, if you do THIS it might work better – let’s try together!”

* 2 – 3 years: At this point your toddler is beginning to talk and, as a result, you have entered new territory when it comes to frustration. You can reassure your child with words now, which will allow him/her to proceed even when a little frustrated. You should still wait when you see signs of frustration to see what your child can do – to see if he or she can figure out a solution – and IF you see that they cannot, you can then offer words before jumping in to help physically. And this applies to all things – when your child is learning to put on clothes and shoes, to pour the cereal or to help in the kitchen – let him/her do the job; don’t show him how to do everything; have patience with small spills or accidents. This way your child can feel the growing confidence that comes with competence. Praise him or her – SPARINGLY – not all the time as some parents do, but praise when he or she actually accomplishes something, such as putting on his/her own shirt for the first time, pouring the milk without spilling, or stirring the cookie dough in a way that actually helps.

Let your child try new skills – 2 to 3 year olds CAN cut with blunt child scissors and they can even cut up fruit with blunt dinner knives. They can go outside in ALL weather if given appropriate clothing; they can sled on their own little sleds and ride tricycles and two wheelers with training wheels; they can take photos and paint and draw and look at picture books by themselves. Do not be afraid to let them try to do things as long as you are there to make sure they are safe. And while you are there watching over their safety, let them make a few mistakes. Again, just watch for signs of frustration. You will know when your child is becoming overly frustrated. Before tears arrive, step in and help – don’t let the activity turn from pleasure to pain because of an excess of frustration. But also do not jump in before your child has been allowed to feel SOME frustration. You can gauge how much he or she can tolerate. This is called “inoculating” your child with frustration. If you allow a toddler to tolerate a little bit and then a little more, by the time he or she is 5 or 6, he/she will be able to tolerate quite a bit and therefore to be able to experiment with more and more tasks in the real and imaginary world!

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