Watching your kids get frustrated can be a frustrating experience for parents, too. Ironically, the source of kids’ frustration is not always challenging schoolwork, household chores, or having to go to a scary doctor’s appointment. Sometimes the source of frustration is play, the thing that’s supposed to be fun, freeing, and pressure-free.
For toddlers, frustration during play often happens because their skills don’t match what they want to accomplish. They lack the fine motor skills needed to avoid knocking over the entire tower of blocks when they add the next one to the top.
For older children and adolescents, frustration can come from playing sports and the pressure to perform at a certain level.
How can you make sure your child learns how to handle frustration and takes away the right message? Here are three ways you can respond as a parent:
1. Evaluate whether your expectations are fair
Instead of getting frustrated with your children’s frustrations, consider whether your expectations of them are realistic. Are they attempting a challenging task when they are hungry or tired? Make sure their basic physical needs are being met before they take on a challenge—even a playful challenge. Also evaluate whether your expectations age-appropriate. Is going to soccer practice four times a week too much for your child’s age? Is the toy he or she is trying to play with better suited for an older child? Adjust your expectations if necessary.
2. Don’t rush to solve the problem for them
In his blog, Dr. Baker Wright, BCBA-D, says, “If you want to teach a paper-thin tolerance for frustration, help early, help often, and respond at the first signs of distress.” For parents, it’s tempting to solve the problem for your child to alleviate their frustration. But overcoming frustration teaches valuable life skills, such as independence, resilience, and perseverance. If you have determined that your expectations (and your child’s expectations of herself) are fair, then let her struggle with the problem. For a toddler, that may mean not responding to the first sounds of frustration he makes. For older children that may mean facilitating a brainstorm session and asking what you can do to help, rather than jumping in with the solution yourself.
(MORE: The Case for Lazier Parenting)
3. Affirm their positive qualities
In his book, The Secrets of Happy Families, author Bruce Feiler discusses a strategy developed by the founder of the Positive Coaching alliance that involves affirming kids’ positive qualities when they express negative feelings and frustrations. When your child says he can’t do something or feels bad that he couldn’t accomplish a goal—whether that’s getting a hit in baseball or building a space shuttle out of Legos—respond with a “You’re the kind of person who… statement.”
For example, you might say, “Sure, I know that didn’t turn out how you wanted it to, but I know you’re the kind of person who keeps trying even when it’s hard and does it all with a smile on your face.” They may be surprised by your assessment at first, but by continually reinforcing these traits, you can help them shape them into part of their identity so that it becomes true over time.
Additionally, studies have shown that praising effort rather than ability or results leads to better success later on. When kids are praised for their efforts, they see their success as something they have more control over and they recognize the importance of effort—rather than desiring just to coast through life on their natural abilities.
Share your thoughts: What types of activities cause your kids the most frustration and how do you respond?
Tip: When your child is frustrated, affirm his or her positive qualities so they incorporate those as part of their identity as a person.