Disappointment in Toddlers

Archived Q&A and Reviews

My toddler becomes so disappointed when he doesn't get his way. How can I help him deal with it? (June 1999)

Our 2.5 year old periodically does this too -- the best solution we've found is to offer him some new activity to focus on, one that is slightly different from the current one and that keeps the process moving forward. So when he complains about not walking/riding the way he wanted, we suggest that for the next stage of the walk he do something differently, like pretend he's a pony or flying or some such. If we offer the idea with enthusiasm, he usually picks up on it and jumps into the new activity and forgets the pain of the previous one. It isn't a bad life lesson either -- finding something new to do to get over a current disappointment's a pretty useful coping skill.
I have a three year old son, and a daughter in kindergarten, and I have two suggestions:
1) emphasize TAKING TURNS. That was your brothers turn, next time it will be your turn. (or chance, or choice, or whatever).
2) sometimes distraction still works well--even with threes! Good luck.
Both my sons went through periods at about 3-1/2 where they wanted things to be a certain way, and would have a fit when things were different. My personal favorite was my older son's meltdown because he wanted our house to be on the other side of the street. We tried to narrate/discuss our comings and goings as much as possible, and give as much notice of things and as many options as possible to head off the crises. That helped a lot. But some demands were too inconvenient (like going back down the block) or just impossible (like the house location) to meet. We concluded that the kids sometimes just needed to blow, and looked for something that could/would not be changed was a great excuse. The period was intense in both cases, but relatively short. As my grandmother always said, when you think you can't stand it anymore, they change....
Although my daughter is younger than your son, her strive for independence/self-sufficiency is very strong. I give choices right from the beginning instead of doing anything for her, i.e. every evening I have her select the order of her four goodnight books - and she always changes her preferred sequence. For daily schedules, I will tell her in advance what the day is going to be like and offer her simple and safe choices as I see them come up. Do you want to put on the black shoes or the white shoes? We are feeding the fish now, do you want to open the container or should Mommy open it? We are going for a walk, do you want to walk to ahead or behind? It's just part of our natural conversation and language acquisition - it gives us something to talk about. (If I were to just pick a goodnight book without checking with her if that one is okay with her, she would assert herself and pick another one - just because). Maybe that's the kind of dialogue you want to get going. It's not convenient for the parent, but it is helpful for the child.
I've been down this road with my older son and sometimes still go there :-) I think the key is to acknowledge the feelings and give your son the opportunity to cry *in a supportive environment*. This is very different from saying too late buddy, using a time-out which essentially alienates him, or letting him cry it out. In all of those the parent disengages. This is also different from telling the kid to stop crying or stifling their emotional expression. We do try to pick our battles and accomodate our kids as much as we can, but we also set limits and there are always going to be disappointments. When that happens I'll make sure to say, I know, you really wanted to do X. Sometimes we have to set a limit about where and when to cry: You can go back in the restaurant when you're done crying.

I think that at this age kids are desperate to have a little control over their environment. If you think about it they're pretty powerless. One thing I did was to allow him to set certain rituals which I agreed to abide by as long as they weren't arbitrary. So, I know that whenever we get into the car he wants to get into his carseat first, before his younger brother. I always give him the opportunity, but if he's dawdling I'll say, If you want to be first you have to be in your seat by the time I count to three. Your brother is heavy and I want to put him down.