A couple weeks ago, my toddlers where downstairs in their playroom. We were just hanging out after snack, and my daughter Aeris decided to play with a set of Leapfrog building blocks, similar to Duplo.
Aeris is much more independent compared to her sister, and is very focused on what she wants to do with her toys. In this case, she wanted to take all the single blocks and build one tall, skinny tower.
She had about four blocks left when her tower started to bow and snap. She tried reassembling it but once it got too tall, it wouldn’t stay upright. She is only about 3′ tall, and she could not keep a hand on the tower and attach the last few blocks to the top at the same time.
I could see her frustration every time the tower fell. She was getting red in the face, she was slamming down blocks trying to get them to fasten tighter, and she was refusing to let her sister help her. More importantly, she hated that her vision of what she wanted to do wasn’t working.
From there, I started to go through the checklist in my head:
1. She had just woken from nap and finished her afternoon snack. She should be functioning just fine, but I offered her a snack anyway. She refused.
2. She hadn’t gotten in any arguments or misunderstandings with her sister or me or Troy, so there were no outside influences she was reacting to.
3. Distract and deflect. The focus was solely on this tower, so I asked if she wanted to play with another toy. She refused.
4. Reduce sensory. I asked if she wanted to sit with me and watch a movie. Again, she refused.
5. Giving hints. We tried doing two smaller towers instead of one big one. We tried using the bigger bricks to make a support structure. We built it all flat on the floor, but it broke when she propped it upright. We tried attaching the tower to a base. We tried applying more pressure so the bricks were more secure. These options fared a little better, but she still was visibly upset.
I asked her if she wanted to “Take a minute”, our term for going to another room, slowing down and taking a deep breath. But by then, she was already beyond. And with each refusal, Troy and I were getting more and more desperate.
That moment wasn’t a time for me to explain structural integrity or gravity to my toddler. She wasn’t having it. While I admire her focus and persistence, I didn’t want her to blow up, doing the same thing over and over to get the same result. I also didn’t want to just take the blocks away.
What does it mean when your child seems to be getting frustrated with themselves, and not as a result of something being done TO them? With every iteration, she was growing more and more angry, pushing her sister, hyperventilating, and throwing blocks.
I admit that I don’t behave perfectly when I get frustrated and stressed. Could you imagine grown adults just losing their sh*t because their metaphorical block tower fell over? (Rhetorical…)
Emotional intelligence and emotional regulation are hard to teach. Here is my playful, happy-go-lucky, laid-back child so overcome with frustration and disappointment over a tower that is probably not feasible without a helping hand and some really strong glue. She’s clearly not just going to “get over it.”
After 10 minutes, she finally folded and sat in my lap. I spoke softly and asked, “Were you frustrated? It’s hard when the blocks keep falling.” It took a mix of rocking, humming, and back rubbing to settle her back down. Sometimes when the checklist doesn’t work, you start the process over until something clicks. Oh, the fickle toddler mind….
After 15 minutes, it was time to go to Grandma’s for dinner. She snapped right back into her excited, happy self, picked up the blocks and got in the car.
I really felt for my child who was trying so hard to understand but couldn’t. Without a doubt, all parents experience this on the daily. A kid just getting frustrated on their own accord. It’s not sensory. It’s not external unfairness or pain. It’s the first teachable moment about actively using your reason before losing it.
In our Whole Brain Child and Emotional Regulation posts, Mary and I talked about understanding how the toddler brain functions and what we can do to bring our kids from seeing red back down to yellow. This was my most recent experience following those tips in real time.
As you can see, there’s never a magic solution. Coaching her through 20 minutes of frustration was not easy (or quiet). No matter how inane or irrational our kids might be in these situations, we have to do our best to guide them appropriately.
What are some of your experiences handling #bigfeelings?