Life is full of challenging feelings, and kids don’t come pre-programmed with frustration management skills!
Fortunately, with a little bit of guidance and a lot of patience, you can help your child develop coping strategies to deal with frustrations both large and small.
“Frustration in and of itself is not a bad thing—it helps children learn how to become more resilient,” says Heidi Emberling, MA, Assistant Director of Parent Education at Parents Place.
Here are Heidi’s tips to help your child manage frustration.
Tailor Your Approach
“A child’s world will always be full of emotional ups and downs. Some leading to joy and fun and some leading to irritation and frustration. Kids have to deal with things like not having full control of their environment, challenging peer interactions, and parents setting appropriate limits.”
These types of everyday frustrations can lead to big emotions—which can sometimes lead to unwanted behaviors, such as throwing tantrums, melting down, resorting to hitting, and more. To help your child, Heidi says, the key is in understanding your particular child’s temperament.
A highly sensitive child, for example, might get overwhelmed easily. Find a cozy regrouping spot (such as a corner of the room, or a teepee) where they can temporarily retreat and take a break to gather themselves.
On the other hand, super active kids, who have trouble sitting still, might benefit from being able to channel their energy. Have them jump up and down, shake it out, squeeze and unsqueeze fists, or shoot some basketball hoops.
Regardless of your child’s particular temperament, when frustration first arises, it can help to step back from the situation that is causing the frustration.
All kids are different, and no two will have the exact same triggers of frustration. A few common triggers include: transitions, feeling misunderstood, and unexpected or new situations. And don’t overlook the two big ones—being hungry or tired.
Model a Constructive Response
Actions speak louder than words. Remember that your child will model how you as a parent cope with frustration.
“They learn everything from us, especially in regards to dealing with big feelings. If you shout, they’ll learn shout. If you slam doors, they’ll learn to slam doors. How you manage your own frustration has a direct correlation to how successful our children will be in managing their own. They’re little sponges—they pick up everything.” If you try your best to remain calm and look for solutions, your children will likely follow suit, too.
What about how we react to their frustration? Heidi is fond of the phrase “connect before you correct.”
“Children have to feel validated and understood before they can learn. Often we attempt to solve a problem before establishing that connection.”
Validate Big Feelings
Let’s say your child is learning to draw and he’s frustrated because he can’t draw the castle he envisions in his mind. A way to validate the feeling would be to say something like, “Looks like your drawing is not coming out the way you see it in your mind. This must be important to you. Did I get that right?”
You don’t have to go overboard; authenticity is key here. The goal is to align yourself in your child’s world. When your child is overwhelmed, he’ll appreciate that you “get it” and that you’re on his side.
Build From Your Child’s Strengths
It can be tempting to step in and try to solve your child’s problems when frustrations arise. But long-term, says Heidi, that doesn’t do your child any favors. Like adults, children like to feel competent and capable, and it’s your job as a parent to coach them along.
It’s also not time for lessons like “practice makes perfect.” When overwhelmed with frustration, your child is not likely in the frame of mind to be receptive to lessons.
What can be helpful instead is to leave space for problem solving. Offer help thinking a problem through knowing that sometimes the most effective act is a simple comforting hug to reset the nervous system.
Building Resilience Into Adulthood
While all children (and us adults!) experience frustration from time to time, if your child is really struggling, it might be time to seek additional support.
“Red flags go up for me when a child is losing the ability to cope with everyday life. If a child is breaking down everyday over minor things or if parents are altering their lives significantly to work around the child—those are signs to look out for and something we at Parents Place can help with.”
“We want our children to be able to practice now when they’re young. Bouncing back from disappoint is an important skill as challenges get more complex as they grow,” says Heidi.
“If they can cope now with smaller scenarios, then they’re on path to building resilience into adulthood.”