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Baby Steps: Confronting Challenge

Q  I have an 8-month-old son who has been a joy from the day he was born, but these days he's much more irritable than usual. It seems as though his desires move faster than his body, and this frustrates him, leading to screaming fits. For example, he's able to pull himself up by a chair or stool, but he can't get back down on his own, so he stands there and cries. What can I do to help him?

A Your son is having his first experiences with the stresses of growing up, and it's natural for him to get a little frustrated when he's tackling something new and difficult. This isn't just the case with babies¿ -- even adults who love a challenge can get anxious and frustrated when approaching something particularly tough.

Most adults, however, have several sets of skills to soften the intensity of frustrations: We have words to express our feelings; we have the ability, most of the time, to walk away from that which is frustrating us; and we have the capacity to understand that our negative emotions arise from our sense of being dwarfed by a challenge. Your son doesn't have any of these skills yet, making each new situation much more difficult for him¿ -- and you.

The best thing you can do to help him is to set a tone for these challenges by staying calm and encouraging his efforts, thereby helping him develop skills to cope with his frustration today and in the future. Be matter-of-fact and reassuring when you rescue him from standing up. Say something like, "It's hard to get down sometimes, isn't it? You'll get it soon." Your soothing tone of voice will convey what the words, which he won't yet understand, might not.

This even, not-to-worry voice is particularly important when your son wants to do something that is impossible for him, such as come to you from across the room when he can't yet walk. It's what he will internalize and hear in his head when he is frustrated about a variety of things, from not getting his juice fast enough to waiting on a long line with you. It's a voice that says, "You'll get through this. You are fine. You can do it." As he grows older, you can also say things like, "You just needed some help," so that he can learn the words to ask for what he needs.

Don't discourage him from taking on a challenge because you don't want him to get frustrated. If he repeatedly pulls himself up, only to get stuck, don't tell him not to, even if you are tired of getting him seated again. Remember, he is driven to learn and to move forward, and discouraging him only sends a message that he shouldn't try things that are difficult. You don't want him to feel that he should avoid challenges so that he can avoid failure.

That said, you also have to take into account how upset your son is getting when you encourage him to keep trying. If he is really beside himself with distress over a particular challenge, there is nothing wrong with suggesting to him that he take it easy and have a bit of quiet time. Part of coping with frustration is knowing when to take a break and distract yourself so you can go back later and try anew.

The best part of infant bouts of frustration like the ones your son is experiencing is that they are short-lived. Such phases usually only last for a few weeks before the skill is mastered and life is (temporarily) wonderful again. So my guess is that your son is already back to his old self again¿ -- or already on to the next big challenge.