When a child gets frustrated, it is good to identify the root cause. Generally, children become frustrated when things don’t go the way they expected or envisioned. For example, a task may be harder or more time-consuming than a child anticipated or a game may not be going the way he planned. Many children become frustrated when they are given unexpected assignments or chores. The fact of the matter is, so do many adults.
Knowing what is causing the frustration helps us to be more sympathetic and understanding, and this should be our starting point. I know it can be hard to be sympathetic when your child is taking a tantrum over something you consider petty. But it helps when you acknowledge the reason for their frustration: I know that learning long division is frustrating. There are so many steps and it takes a long time. But you’re not the only one who feels this way. Then offer encouragement: Hang in there. I know it’s hard, but you’ll eventually get really good at it!
When a child is frustrated, there are three things you should not do. First, don’t allow him to give up on the difficult task (unless it really is beyond his ability). You may need to postpone completing the task until he cools down, but teach him to persevere. Second, don’t become so frustrated yourself that you become harshly judgmental: Why the heck do you keep swinging and missing the ball? You’re just not trying hard enough! Third, if he is struggling with a task, don’t let preoccupations or laziness make you coldly indifferent: You’re fussing over that? It’s so easy. Go figure it out. I’m busy.
Mitigating frustration: avoid what makes it worse
I have noticed that there are certain conditions that exacerbate frustration. Some of these can be helped; others are completely out for your control. The two conditions which you don’t have control over are:
Age/maturity: Until the age of five, most children are so egocentric that they are incapable of seeing things from other people’s point of view. They also have few qualms about acting out their frustrations (aka tantrums) anytime and anywhere.
Temperament: Some children are just born with more intense dispositions. Highly competitive children and detail-oriented perfectionists tend to experience more frustrations than their mellow, easy-going peers.
There’s not much you can do about your child’s age or temperament, except patiently and lovingly bear with their immaturity and personality. Bear in mind that all temperaments have pros and cons. Highly competitive children may be easily frustrated, but they are driven to succeed and are often self-motivated. Perfectionists may be easily frustrated when they fall short of perfection, but their work is usually very well done. I’d like a perfectionist for a surgeon or an accountant, wouldn’t you?
The conditions that exacerbate frustration which you can help are as follows:
Tiredness and/or insufficient sleep: Get your kids to bed early and have a regular wake up time.
Hunger: Many children become hangry when their tummies rumble. Feed them healthy snacks.
Discomfort or pain: Illness, allergies, or headaches can make one irritable or edgy.
Underlying anger or resentment: When a child is stewing about something, other little annoyances flare up his anger/frustration. Find out what is upsetting him and help him find a resolution. Often, just being able to unburden oneself helps soften resentment.
Unrealistic or unfair parental demands: It’s always good to do a self-check. Are my expectations for my children fair and reasonable? Do they take into account their temperaments, maturity and natural abilities?
All children experience frustration. Avoiding or preventing conditions that exacerbate frustration will mitigate the severity of frustration flare-ups.
More importantly, there are things we can do to help prevent frustration:
Stick to a Routine Remember that the root cause of frustration is usually thwarted or unmet expectations. Routines help children know what to reasonably expect each day.
Try to be consistent in your parenting: Some days we may feel moody and therefore act strictly; other days we may feel light-hearted and we become more lenient. However, it’s confusing and frustrating for children when parents are inconsistent. As much as possible (I know it isn’t easy!) try not to let your mood dictate the decisions you make and the way you discipline.
Communicate your expectations clearly: One of the best ways of communicating your expectations is by giving your children a checklist of all the assignments and chores they need to complete each day. I may make changes to a checklist in the morning or the evening before, but after that, the checklist is non-negotiable. I have found that once you start negotiating the checklist with your kids, your expectations become fuzzy and your kids will get into the habit of trying to change the list. So make your checklist fair and reasonable, and then be firm about it. And resist the urge to add more work to it at the last minute! (The last thing your kids want to hear is: Oh? You finished your math early? Great. Now do three more pages.) Eventually your kids will learn and accept that whatever you assign them on the checklist must and will get done. On their end, there are no unpleasant surprises (chores/assignments) that will cause frustration.
Teach them how to manage difficult assignments: Don’t let your kids agonize over a difficult writing assignment or an enigmatic math problem. It’s important to teach our kids to persevere, but that doesn’t mean we need to make them struggle over a math problem for an hour as they growing increasingly agitated.
Make sure they ask for help when they need it. If a child is stumped by a math problem and you are busy helping another child, let your student look at the solutions manual or answer key and then try the next problem without it. If an assignment is long and difficult, show your child how to break it up into smaller bits and take breaks or do easier subjects in-between.
Learning to cope with frustrations
No matter how hard you try to mitigate and prevent frustrations, your children will still have moments of exasperation. It’s part of learning. So, perhaps the best thing you can do is to nurture the virtues that will help them cope with frustrations. These virtues include patience, self-control, perseverance, understanding, flexibility, the ability to see the needs of others, and a good sense of humor.
As much as our children’s sports schedules cause me stress, I must admit that playing sports is an excellent way of helping children develop these virtues. A boy who strikes out in a baseball game will feel frustrated and even embarrassed, but he will need to exercise self-control in order not to have a meltdown in front of his teammates. He will also need to persevere through many practices in order to improve his swing. And, playing on a team will teach him to think of the good of the team over his own success.
Each frustrating moment is an opportunity to grow in these virtues. So try not to be appalled each time your child is frustrated; look at it as an important learning moment. A child who learns to deal with set-backs, disappointments, and frustrations will be very well prepared for the larger problems that come with adult life.
Finally, let’s remember that parents lead and teach best by example. The way you deal with your own frustrations will teach your children how to cope with theirs. This is a sobering thought, no doubt, but one that should motivate us to strive for patience and cheerfulness. The good news is that children are very forgiving.
We don’t have to be perfect examples; we just have to be loving examples. And as long as we keep on trying to master our own frustrations, our children will learn to do the same.
Mary Cooney is a home-schooling mother of five who lives in Maryland. The above article is a lightly edited version of one published on her blog, Mercy For Marthas.