The Frustrated Two Year Old

The agony of the frustrated two year old! A very popular topic for discussion over the years on my old forum, with clients….at conferences. Here are some thoughts. And don’t forget to look at our early years book The Journey Begins at Home and our other early years materials if you want more!


My daughter (age two and a half) becomes very frustrated when something she’s doing isn’t “working” for her, such as putting clothes on her stuffed animals or trying to zip something open/closed. She will scream and throw the toy, sometimes bite at the toy or object (she doesn’t bite people or other children), cry, scream for me to help her, etc. This is all fine and to be expected, to some extent, of course, but my problem is, I have absolutely no idea what to do! By responding and helping her, am I encouraging her unpleasant (screaming/demanding help) behavior? I have been making her say please and speak more pleasantly before I help her, but maybe this is asking too much of her? I don’t want her to feel that frustration must be suppressed, but how do I encourage pleasant behavior?

Donna’s Response:

Ah, the pain which one experiences between what one wants to do and what one is able to do….something that is just part of life and manifests in a myriad of different ways as we grow! How wonderful it is to strive beyond one’s limitations – but the real trick is to learn to cope with the frustration of not being able to manage to do what one is unable to do. This takes experience, maturity and time.

A two year old really has none of these things – one might think she “has time” but at her age, she has no real concept of time. A 2 year old lives in the eternal now – she wants it NOW! Her now is not the same as the desirable “living in the present” that a mature, calm and self aware adult strives for!

Your job, as always, is to keep calm and not get into “her stuff”. It is very tempting to feel a child’s frustration (whether at 2 she cannot mange a zip or at 9 cannot mange to throw a baseball). It is of the utmost importance that a parent learns how to keep her own stuff completely separate from that of her child’s and not get into her child’s frustrations and angst. Her job is to learn that the material world is full of challenges – your job is to be a peaceful “holding” presence (not necessarily literally) as she learns.

This job is so much easier for those parents who have children who are generally calm and matter-of-fact about what they can and cannot do. For those who have children who seem to spend all their time screaming and clawing their way against all the things that they cannot mange (yet!) then this job is exhausting and at times demoralizing. I can guarantee you 100% that it does get better – she WILL move through this. But for now… is a wonderful opportunity for you to develop your spiritual practice of being calm, in the moment and not entangled with your child’s frustrations.

So what to do? First – remember to breathe. Always take a deep breath (and perhaps count to 10) before going over to see what’s up (unless there is some danger involved). Smile. Say something warm but neutral like “oh dear”. Taking a leaf from the Non Violent Communication folks (whose work I admire and dislike in equal proportions) you can calmly name what is happening “Oh. That zip just doesn’t want to zip does it?” Sit down next to her or continue to stand (no hovering though. Just be.)

At this point (if you are lucky) your warm presence will have acted like a balm on your child and she will have calmed down. If so, it could be right to say “Let me help” and move your hands toward her. If this illicits outrage or anything like that, withdraw your hands but not your warm presence. Let her rage, let her scream at her zip. She will eventually figure out that this is not going to work.

At that point you might make your offer again or you might just let her be. It’s a hard call to make. The main thing is to do what you do from calmness and peace – never from anxiety and “am I doing this right” – this will just ignite the flames under a raging child as she will sense this! A little one needs adults who are calm and certain – they need an unruffled mother hen – never a “oh dear what shall I do” presence!  The former is the strength that they need to push against whereas the latter just breaks up under their rage – and this is very, very scary for a child.

Regarding manners and such: I am a real stickler for children being respectful to others, especially parents and adults. The way to wonder and engagement with the world and the development of true autonomy is via respect, not via outrage and rudeness. No parent should ever be a punching bag (literally or figuratively) and things like “please” and waiting one’s turn to speak or to pass the food and so on are all vital parts of self respect and respect to others.

However, your child is 2. She is not yet on the way toward being an ‘I’ – soon, as she moves through her third year, the first (the very first!) steps will occur in that direction. Over the next 10 years you will have ample opportunities to help her become social and a joy to be with (which children have to learn – it does not come naturally – though what I mean by ‘learn’ is world’s away from what moralizing nagging people might envision!).

At 2 (and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6) the main job you have is to model behavior for her. This is an active gesture of saying things like “thank you” for her and never saying things like “say thank you” which makes one want to curl up in embarrassment. Until she can start to feel into a situation, until she can start to know how it feels to be thanked and so on, one cannot expect a child to do this herself. Of course, some children can be taught to parrot this – but any sensitive adult can feel the difference between that shy murmured (or loudly exuberant) ‘thank you” and one which is mumbled out of habit. But to say thank you is the right thing – so you say it for her! (and please and so on).

It is unpleasant to be screamed for and it should not be encouraged. However, when your 2 year old is in the midst of a fit of frustration over not being able to fit her stuffed animal into its clothes, this is not the time to say things like “I will come when you use your quiet voice”. The child is too far gone to be able to respond! This is a sure recipe for heightened frustration – or, perhaps worse, the child’s dawning realization that her feelings are not taken seriously. This is big stuff for her!!! She is totally 100% involved in this scene with the doll or zip. She is way way to young to be able to step back from being in the situation – and that is what one wants in a small child, to be totally immersed and engaged in what she is doing (much more pleasant when it manifests as totally being one with climbing trees or examining the contents of a closet or so on…..but there you go! )

So no, you don’t want to encourage her to scream for you but the best way to counter this is for you to be calm and at another time, when she is not in a rage, to say something about quiet voices or how we speak to one another. Having said that, again, 2 is so young that there is little point. It is what we DO not what we SAY that is most important when we are with under 7’s – and the younger they are, the more this is so. And even more than that, it is what we are inside (which of course they are totally aware of) which is even more important. Imitation, imitation, imitation – and surrounding the child with what is Good, Beautiful and True. Works 100% more effectively (and authentically in terms of fostering true inner freedom) than moralizing or telling a child what to do. (and I’m not suggesting that you are moralizing! )

So breath, be calm and find non aggro times to help your daughter learn by experience and imitation how to interact with other people.

Posted on May 15, 2013 in Kindergarten (and pre-K)

  • Monika says:

    Dear Donna, I find your response to Leighs question so beautiful and helpful. I can so relate to “And even more than that, it is what we are inside (which of course they are totally aware of) which is even more important.” My experience on my parenting journey with my almost very sensitive 4 year old which also inspired my personal/psychological/spiritual journey within on a deeper level is proving for me this statement to be very true. I just have one question regarding your admiration and dislike of the Non Violent Communication work. I would appreciate if you can please expand a little on what aspects of it you like and which are the one you dislike or disagree with and why. Thank you kindly, Monika

  • Donna says:

    Hi Monika,
    NVC is based on working with adults (though there are a number of people who have adapted it to work with children). Used judiciously and sensitively, with the developmental needs of the child to the fore, it can be a wondrous tool. But if one constantly reflects to a child and does not come from a strong (empathetic, grounded) ‘I’, then the child can experience this as a vacuum.This is frightening for a child – some react with an outward gesture of rage or crying, others withdraw. Still others learn too early to step into the abyss that the adult has left empty.
    What can work is if one says things like “I hear what you’re saying” and really holds the space with a fully present adult, incarnated ‘I’. Choices can be framed – but ultimately, they are the province of adults if the child is younger than 10 or so – and after that it is still, for many years, a process, with the adult never reneging responsibility but gracefully ( we can all try!!!) working together to truly empower the older child or teen to take more and more responsibility for him/herself. But it’s a long road.
    NVC can also be way too verbal for young children, putting them into “therapy mode”. Young ones should never be made to be self conscious, self aware – this immediately removes them from the sense of Oneness with the world that is the birthright of the first 7 years of childhood. But again, NVC methods can be used silently, with intentionality, as one develops the ability to be warmly present for children.

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