Guiding Young Children Through Frustration, Not Around It
Young children have intense emotions, both happy and sad. I read that preschool age children laugh 100 times a day! Their feelings can also turn on a dime, and one of the hardest emotions for parents to witness is frustration. It’s so tempting to just fix it for them and be done, but deep down we know that is more for our benefit than theirs. We want even our youngest children to have the ability to overcome a bit of frustration and anger without us jumping in to save them.
Here Are 3 Things We Can Do:
1. Try to give your children just enough challenge. There is a “sweet spot” for frustration, and the right amount actually creates motivation to keep trying and learn. Working through frustration and solving problems are rewarding life skills that improve with practice, so not running to “save” our children from frustration is important. They quickly learn to quit too soon, and look to you for rescue.
Finding the “sweet spot” isn’t always possible, of course, but we have the ability to create the conditions for success more times throughout the day than we probably realize.
We do that when we put a reasonable amount of food on their plate, minimize the amount of stuff in their bedrooms, buy them easy to put on clothing and shoes, make age appropriate toy purchases, provide child-sized furniture, and slow down and refuse to hurry them. By challenging them just enough and not overwhelming them, we can set the stage for helping our children learn to become capable, positive, and resilient problem solvers.
Also, look for the signs that patience is wearing thin. We want them to stretch their patience, not wait until it snaps in two and they give up.
You can say, “Let me know if you need help.”
2. Give their feeling a name. Angry, anxious, jealous, grumpy, and frustrated all feel pretty much the same to a young child. They all create a tingling or tightness in the chest, and maybe a clenched jaw or fist as well. Not knowing what word to call it makes it hard for them to know what to say and do about it.
You can say, “You must feel so frustrated! Your blocks keep falling down/your brother isn’t listening/you can’t have another cookie. I’ve felt frustrated before, too.”
Just knowing what their feeling is called, their feeling is normal, and that you understand can deescalate a situation quickly.
3. Model how to work through your own frustration and manage anger. Probably the most important way you can help kids learn to work through frustration and how to manage anger, is for them to see how you handle your own. Uh oh… right? It’s true, though. There are negative statements that we probably all make in front of our children when we are frustrated, that teach unfortunate things.
Never Model Rage, Helplessness, or Avoidance
Just like our children, frustration can lead us to adult tantrums, or find us melting in a puddle of self-pity. Maybe worse, is when we avoid our problem by self-medicating with ice cream, alcohol, pills, or escaping to the computer, TV or mall! When our children watch us slam doors, pound the table or yell, hear us halfway joke about “needing a drink” or watch us give up, it teaches them how to cope.
Use Your Frustration to Teach Good Coping Skills
It is hard to do, but remember your children are watching you and learning. (What did you teach them today when you forgot your keys or spilled your drink?) Try to remain calm, keep a sense of humor, and let your children hear you say positive things to yourself.
Say things out loud like:
“I’m going to take a break and come back to it.”
“Next time, I won’t take on quite so much.”
“This is rough, but I know I can do it if I practice.”
“I’m going to take some big breaths and get some water.”
“This is a good lesson for me.”
“I wonder who I could ask for help?”
Learning how to manage anger and accepting every day frustrations and conflicts are healthy life lessons for children (and parents too)! In a world with so many quick fixes, it is more important to slow down and help kids learn many good ways to “keep at it.”