From Snuggle to Struggle – Part 3: Skip the ARGGH!

Or 6 Steps to Help Kids Manage Frustration

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Excitement is in the air! Nate is beginning Kindergarten today! He just received a pair of brand new shoes with laces. Mom sits down with him, and shows him how to tie his shoes. She begins a rhyme with rabbit ears and a hole…one, two, three times…but she loses Nate’s attention in the process, and mom lost a little bit of her own pride. Who knew this could so frustrating? Nate sits, his arms crossed, and refuses to try any further. He has given up. He yells “I can’t do it! I’ll never be able to tie my shoes! I’ll never go to Kindergarten!”

For a preschooler, this kind of a frustrating moment is bound to happen because there are so many new things to learn! However our children’s biggest challenge is to learn to control their feelings. And as parents, we have a role in that learning process. Indeed, our attitudes, mood, reactions and interpretations all influence our children’s responses to frustration. Since most of us think of frustration as being a bad emotion that children need to harness, we tend to try to erase it. We might show no tolerance for it, or even respond to it with our own frustration.

Of course, a child’s frustration can be a negative emotion if it is not managed properly and in that case, frustration can create a negative emotional chain. In this chain, frustration may turn into anger (“I don’t want to!”), then into emotional despair (“I’m no good”). At that point one may fear they can’t do anything right. Eventually, that attitude can lead them to truly failing to achieve anything.

Frustration is an emotion hard-wired in all of us. We all experience it at one point or another. But it really has an evolutionary purpose: it acts as a productive emotion, an agent of change that pushes us to move obstacles and to reach our goals. For that reason, frustration needs to be harnessed to act as a positive driving force. We are all capable of using frustration properly, but only some of us have learned to control it better. So here are a few tips to help children learn to harness their own frustration:

Our tip: 6 steps to manage frustration.

1. Accept and identify the emotions: Tell the child “I understand you must feel frustrated because you did not get the results you wanted. It’s normal, but let’s see how we can fix it.”

2. Identify the emotional stage: Is the child at the beginning of the frustration chain? Is he already angry? Does he refuse to do anything else? Does he dismiss his abilities? Does he believe he is no good?

3. Explain the problem, and find a solution together: Explain to him that being angry is not going to help, and that he needs to recenter. Tell him to keep believing in his abilities. Explain that he cannot generalize his failure at one task to everything else he does.

4. Step back or take a break: Help the child put some emotional and physical distance between him and the source of his frustration. Nothing good happens when we are driven by negative emotions. Take him outside to cool off, get him a snack (we all know how being hungry makes us sensitive), or even better, let him do anything different from the task at hand, especially if it’s something he will successfully complete.

5. Come back with a fresh mind: Time to brainstorm! Try to help him understand the problem and find new solutions.

6. Break the exercise into small steps: If it still appears to be too hard for him, divide the task into smaller more manageable steps. If the level of difficulty is disproportionate to his age, just explain to him that this exercise is for older kids and he should try it again in a few years.

If you want to be more proactive, pull out the board games. These offer are a great way to practice problem-solving skills, while also learning to master frustration. Make sure your preschooler feels secure playing with you, and bring the game to his level of development. That is: simplify the rules if necessary. Don’t try to just play fair like big kids need to, but let him play with the help of a sibling, a friend, or a parent at first. Let him experience a win, then get progressively more involved. He will practice the game, assimilate the rules and master the tactics, then he will be ready to do it all on his own.

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