Increasing Frustration Tolerance of Non-verbal Toddler

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It is small consolation knowing that Big A, my two-year-old autistic toddler, is as frustrated by his lack of speech as we are, especially because he communicates this by screeching, kicking, and throwing whatever’s closest (or his little self upon the floor).

Big A doesn’t ask for a drink, he screams and throws his empty cup at us. When he’s frustrated at a toy he throws it, kicks, and screams. If we’re taking longer than he’d like to leave for the day he sits by the door and, you guessed it, screams.

He remains easily redirected, which I’m eternally thankful for, but hearing staccato screeches multiple times a day slowly grates ones soul. Screaming is not an effective long-term coping skill. Not for me in the adult world, or at him (though, man, is it tempting sometimes just to scream right back at him), nor for Big A.

I estimate we have six months before it’s a huge problem: Big A could create a steady habit of screaming when experiencing negative emotions.

Josh and I need to teach our oldest boy to replace the habit of screeching when frustrated with more constructive skills.

Kids have some specific triggers:

  • transitions
  • negative peer interactions
  • hunger
  • lack of control
  • unexpected situations
  • exhaustion
  • challenges

Big A seems to particularly dislike: unexpected situations, lack of control, and challenges. Once we narrowed that down, Josh and I attempted to increase these provocations. The more Big A is exposed to these situations the stronger his coping response can get. It’s similar to exposing children to germs in an attempt to bolster their immune system. Increasing frustration tolerance leads to greater emotional health-for everyone involved.

Ms. Carrot Head, AKA, Satan

This is where Ms. Carrot Head comes in. For reasons I have yet to cipher, Big A loses his mind when pieces fall off that stupid thing. She’s as old as I am so pieces frequently slip awry. Ms. Kathy, his First Steps worker, left her to basically torture our son with. We’re actively trying to make him mad via the disembodiment of his new toy, the goal being he signs “help” rather than freak out. Then Josh and I are to step in, and help Big A put the pieces back into the carrot.  We ask Big A if he needs help while signing “help,” then sign “help” hand-over-hand with him. Hand-over-hand again, we put the piece back into the carrot. When all is said and done, clapping and ecstatically exclaiming “yaaaaaaaaaay Big A did it yaaaaaaaaaay” commences. Repeat ad nauseum.

Increasing Frustration Tolerance of Non-verbal Toddler

Ugh, Mindfulness

We come to grasp the different meanings behind our children’s cries as infants and that intuition continues into toddler-hood. I know when Big A is hungry as opposed to bored, in pain as opposed to frustrated. I’ve had to stop myself from fulfilling his wishes upon understanding, not picking the empty cup from the floor for a refill, making Big A sign “more” and “thank you.”We also have to correct the behavior when he handles his frustrations inappropriately. A constant refrain in our house is “that’s not how we deal with that.” As always with parenting, half the battle is within myself. As I am training Big A to increase his frustration tolerance I am training myself to increase mindfulness, to think before I act, to not automatically respond to the stimuli in my environment, like a ball bouncing around a pin-ball machine.

Increasing Frustration Tolerance in Nonverbal Toddlers
Big A puts the piece on Ms. Carrot Head with no outburst-look at his quiet, proud smile at the end


I am happy to report that it’s working. This week Big A put the piece on Ms. Carrot himself. Without screaming. He clapped for himself and signed “good job” afterwards. He’s stopped throwing his cup at us, signing “more” calmly instead. If he starts to kick, etc, he side-eyes us warily, waiting for, and then responding to, the “no.” Actively working to increase a toddler’s frustration tolerance sucks in the moment. You can’t see the point, minute-by-minute or day-by-day. Progress is incremental: week-by-week, if you’re lucky, but more likely month-by-month. The real test lies in continuing to choose the action that chips away at the goal; not the one that will momentarily stop the screaming.

Speaking or not, all toddlers struggle with frustration tolerance. Hell, all of us do. How do you help your kids? Yourself? Comment below! Share this article and snarkily tag someone who needs to work on their frustration tolerance (kidding).



Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.
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6 Responses

  1. I think this is a skill all parents should make the time to work on. I also think that most adults in this world need to work on this skill also, myself included.

  2. I admire your patience. I don’t know if I could have coped with the kinds of parenting challenges you are faced with. Normal sibling squabbles were enough to send me into orbit. I would be reduced to jelly by repeated daily meltdowns. Big A is blessed to have you as Mom.

    1. Thank you so much. I do feel rather jelly-like at times. Like one of those weird molds with ham in it or something from the 1950’s.

  3. My son bites. Every day. If he’s tired and someone enters his space or takes his toy, or God forbid, tries to enter a ride-on boat when he’s on it or near it… Jaws. He’s been evaluated (a couple of months ago, when he dealt with frustration by hitting his head on the floor), but didn’t quite qualify for FS. l was thinking last night of starting some “practice” of taking his toy and substituting words and signs for biting. My first attempt led to the mother of all fits, but you’ve given me hope to try again.
    I’m following your journey with great interest, both as a teacher and a mom.
    Thank you!

    1. Thank YOU! Oh, man, biting. Last week I heard a mom down the aisle repeating between clenched teeth, “kisses don’t have teeth!” Big A is starting to head butt. I’ve been trying to think of signs and/or some cute phrase to hiss in public too.

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