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Helping Young Children Cope With Frustration

Helping Young Children Cope With Frustration

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Updated on Dec 10, 2010

One of the best lessons that you can help your young child learn over the years is how to cope with frustration. As they move through school, children will be asked to do increasingly challenging tasks that are at or beyond the limits of their capabilities; they will inevitably encounter frustration, both in academic and social arenas. In fact, the gulf between successful and unsuccessful children will not necessarily arise due to differences in intelligence and skills, but rather due to differences in ability to handle setbacks and persist in the face of frustration.

Preschool children do not have very much experience dealing with frustration, as all of their needs have always been met by their caregivers. They haven't yet acquired all of the language skills that they need to express themselves verbally, and they also lack the brain development that enables adults to label and regulate emotions and how those emotions are expressed. In order for children to develop both the verbal and social/emotional skills that they need, it's important that they be encounter situations that involve a small, manageable amount of frustration.

Preschoolers can get easily overwhelmed, and need a lot of assistance in terms of breaking down problems into manageable parts, a key step in handling frustrating situations. Children that do not learn how to deal with frustration early in life may encounter later problems, such as lack of confidence, anxiety, anger, trouble with friends, and difficulty trying new things. If they do not know how to tolerate and cope with frustration, children will always expect others to solve their problems and will give up in the face of the first sign of difficulty. Here are some tips for helping your child cope with frustration:

  • Keep calm. When you see your child become frustrated, try not to mirror that frustration in your own voice or behaviors. Instead, focus on staying calm and talking your child through the situation in a gentle voice, guiding her to mirror you. Acknowledge that she is frustrated, but stress the importance of continuing to try to do something that she finds difficult. 
  • Set challenges. Look for opportunities to challenge your children. Routinely ask them to do things that are slightly beyond what they have been capable of doing in the past. Do not jump in to help them. If you see them struggling, instead of immediately helping, try to prompt them by offering hints to make the situation easier. If they are really having difficulty and do not seem to be making any progress after a few minutes, break the task down into small steps. If necessary, guide them through or even do the first step for them, and then back off again. Your child should be hearing the following phrase quite often: “Try it yourself first and if you can’t do it, then I’ll help you get started.” 
  • Wait for it. Help your child learn the important skill of delaying gratification. Preschool children do not yet have the brain development or experience to effectively cope when they have to wait for what they want, so you have to give them practice developing this skill. As much as it is practically possible, have them wait for what they want, even if it's just for a minute or two. Talk to them about how to distract themselves while they are waiting for something. 
  • Encourage independence. Make sure that your child is given many opportunities to play with other children in situations where close adult supervision is not required. Adults should be responsible for ensuring children’s safety, but other than that, try to let children work out problems among themselves. When children play independently, they learn how to deal with frustration in ways other than letting adults solve their problems. 
  • Foster effective communication. Do not teach your child that expressing frustration inappropriately, such as through screaming or hitting, is a good way to get your attention, even if it is negative attention. Ignore these behaviors if they're not causing serious harm, and give lots of positive attention for times when your child handles a potentially frustrating situation in a healthy manner. Point out specifically what she did effectively. 
  • Rely on routine. Keep your child’s world as predictable and routine as possible. If children feel confident and secure in general, they will be able to handle minor setbacks and frustrations.
  • Talk with the teacher. Use your child’s preschool teacher as a resource. Ask for suggestions about how the preschool deals with frustration in children in general, as well as for specific tips about helping your own child. The more that you can be consistent with what the preschool is doing, the easier it will be for your child to internalize the lessons that you are both trying to teach. 
  • Be a role model. When something irritates you, tell your child what you are feeling so he can learn to recognize emotions in others and label them in himself. Then talk yourself through the frustration so that your child can hear you telling yourself things such as, “Relax and take a few deep breaths,” “It’s okay, I can deal with this,” or “This is really not that big of a deal. I need to calm down.”  Any time you encounter frustration while in the presence of your child, imagine that he will replicate your exact behavior every single time he is frustrated for the rest of his life—so proceed carefully! Take care not to raise your voice too loudly, be rude to others, or lash out physically. If you do any of these things, don’t be too hard on yourself, but make sure to tell your child that you made a mistake behaving in that way and need to make a better choice next time

It can take a long time to develop the right skills for coping with frustration, but you can guide your child in the right direction so that eventually he will learn how to manage each challenging situation on his own. Your child’s ability to handle frustration during the preschool years will form a foundation for how he will cope with difficulty for the rest of his life. Learning how to handle challenges is an incredibly important skill that will help promote success not only in academics, but also in interpersonal relationships of every kind.

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