Managing Parental Frustration When Your Child Can’t Choose and Wants Everything

Parental frustration is an hourly and daily experience for most moms and dads who are trying to play nice to their kids by offering them food and or play choices only to get no reaction, or one of wanting everything. Parents want to feel that they are taking their child’s preferences into account and not ignoring their needs. Parental frustration escalates when they are pushed to choose for their unresponsive children and get a temper tantrum in response. Parental frustration leads to exasperation and power struggles with their kids when their efforts to get their children to ‘pick something,’ ‘pick anything’ so we can move on! Anger reigns and nobody wins.

Parental frustration is a factor of age inappropriate expectations of children

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Two-year old Jade’s mother Diane put three ice-cream scoops in front of her – chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. Jade put her fingers in all of them, smeared it all over her face, put it in her mouth, and kept doing it. Her mother said, “Jade, stop putting your fingers in that or you won’t get anything!” But Jade had no idea what that meant. After all, it was all there for her to play with, taste and have fun with. She continued and then started crying when her mom moved it all away. “Look what you’ve done, you naughty girl! What a mess!” Diane cleaned Jade’s face and wiped her hands with a wet cloth. “You can only have one ice-cream. Now pick one, and eat that!” she scolded. Her stress levels rose as she felt herself lose control.

Understandably Diane was annoyed because now three ice-creams had been spoiled. She wanted Jade to choose and stick to her choice. But young children are not able to do that. They are into exploring, touching, tasting and experiencing everything. They are at the developmental stage of getting to know the world and the impact they have on it. So they cannot make a conscious choice when it involves picking one instead of others.

But Diane doesn’t believe that. She says, “Jade wants me to read the same story over and over again and refuses any other book!  My four year old son wants his Lego and won’t accept any substitute for building things! So isn’t this evidence of making choices that involve picking one thing rather than another.”

Actually, not so. This type of behavior is repetitive and seeks to replicate a certain predictability and the reward and sense of mastery that goes with it.

But not so fast Diane comes back at me! “What about when Jade runs to granny when she comes to the house, and pushes me away. Isn’t Jade making a choice?”

Again, not in the sense of giving one thing up for another. It’s about adding to mommy by including granny – it’s having both. Sometimes it’s about novelty and excitement, other times it’s about getting away from something or someone who is for that moment seen as harsh and unrewarding.


  • The fewer choices you offer the easier it is for young children between 0 -5 years. Start with two items and don’t add further complexity unless you see your child looking for other items i.e. knows that there is something else to choose from.
  • Don’t overwhelm or pressure your child to choose just to make your life easier. Structure and organization is grounding and helpful for choices to feel possible, safe and not at risk of losing the things that are not chosen.

Parental frustration shoots up when their child’s inner conflicts are not evident

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Bonny a lively 8-year-old chooses one candy bar but then wants another, only to revert back to the original one. One minute 9-year-old Gordon wanted the action figure he was crying for and as soon his dad Flynn give it to Gordon, the boy discarded it and eyed another one, yelling for it. Flynn’s parental frustration shot sky high; he was astounded that after getting what they wanted, Bonny and Gordon were no longer interested and wanted something else, only to go through the same process again with the next item Flynn gave them when they demand it.

Abbey, a bright 11-year-old was offered a choice between tennis or guitar classes after school. Tennis was the one she went for. Her parents Sara and Callum signed Abbey up for the class. Everyone was happy. The next day Sara bought her daughter all the tennis gear, only to hear Abbey dis the tennis, wanting to do guitar. After Sara got passed her shock and anger she said, “but yesterday you were all into tennis. You can’t change now. I’ve already bought stuff and signed you up.”

Abbey had a temper tantrum, and said “fine, then I don’t want tennis. It’s crap anyway.”

Sara told Callum about the problem. Their parental frustration mounted when Sara couldn’t make and maintain a choice.

Callum and Sara didn’t have any idea why Sara was behaving so badly. They had done what she wanted so why was wasn’t it working?

Here’s what is going on inside Sara. Tennis and guitar are both exciting, but in the moment Sara chooses tennis it’s value outweighs the guitar. But as soon as Sara gets her choice, it’s no longer something exciting and sought after. Instead, Sara got in touch with what she lost – the guitar. Sara got activated about she didn’t have – that’s where the energy is, that’s where the value is. Tennis got devalued because it’s a done deal, but guitar is under threat of loss and must be protected and saved at all costs. So Sara would rather not have anything because what Sara wants at this moment is what is out of reach – guitar. This internal conflict is a massive attempt to come to terms with costs and consequences of making a choice; which inevitably involves having to give up (lose) one thing for another.


  • Tune into how hard it is for YOU to have to give something up that’s special to you. It’s like having to kill off that part of you that is attached and feels good in that place. It’s a loss to have to negate a significant aspect of your sense of self. Nothing is going to make up for it, and in order not to have to feel torn between two parts of yourself, you’ll give up both.
  • Talk to that part of the child that is feeling the loss and acknowledge how hard it is
  • Talk about costs and consequences and how painful it is to have a consequence
  • Give them time and let them process their sense of being pulled apart
  • Share your own experiences and how you came to terms with it
  • Make it a normal experience to feel torn and have to overcome it

Parental frustration is exacerbated when mom and dad have different objectives

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Sanjay was about to begin middle school. He had a choice between computer coding or music in the personal choice schedule.  His parents Francene and Malik talked about it and agreed that he should do computer coding so that he was set for a variety of jobs in the future, and besides, Sanjay liked computers. They told him and he accepted it with some reluctance. The next day Sanjay’s dad felt guilty that he had overridden his son’s love of music and squashed his wish to feed his talent in drums. He told Francene who got upset at the change of plan. The parents argued and each felt unseen and let down by the other. Sanjay was caught in the middle and yelled at them, threw things around and went to his room refusing to talk.

The parental frustration between Francene and Malik had nothing to do with Sanjay, but a reflection of their need to feel like good parents: they were in competition with one another in that arena. For Malik he didn’t want Sanjay to feel that his parents didn’t see and respect his talents as his parents had treated him. He recalled his parents pushing him to be a good at math and science and become a doctor. That’s all they cared about. They made it clear that it was the only way to make them proud. So Malik wanted to compensate and nurture Sanjay. He wanted a do-over through Sanjay. Francene on the other hand wanted her son to have useful skills that would help him support himself as an adult. She had grown up with a dad who was in and out of jobs with no special marketable skills, leaving her mom to be the main bread winner which produced a lot of tension in the household.


  • When discussing curriculum choices for your kids, take the time to think about what is driving you – your own past or your child’s interests, talents and wishes?
  • Talk openly about your own childhood experience that shapes your current thinking so your partner and your child can see where you are coming from.
  • Notice when you get upset with your partner for not sticking to a plan – it’s most likely because there is a hidden agenda of competitiveness between you.
  • Keep asking yourselves who you are making these decisions for – for the future you didn’t have or taking your child’s uniqueness into account and focusing on that.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2021

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