Ask the Experts: How Can I Help My Child Manage Major Frustration?

How to address a child's frustration in a manner that fosters emotional control and growth

frustrated girl

Q: My child is very hard on herself when she’s working at something but it’s not working out the way she wants it to (for example, building a Lego tower or learning to write letters). How do I help her to have patience with herself and to keep trying?

A: The only way children develop resilience is by living through frustration. Over the long term, children benefit when we are there as a loving, caring supporter without desperately trying to make their problems go away.

Start by not offering helpful suggestions. Avoid saying, “It’s not that big of a deal” or, “Just relax” or, “Don’t rush.” All those admonishments lead to smoke coming out of a child’s ears. If she could relax, she would relax. 

Instead, validate your child’s experience: “It’s hard to want the tower to stay up, but it continues to fall. I can’t imagine how frustrated you are right now!” Don’t forget to “cluck” in sympathy: “Oh, sweetie, gosh, this is hard!” Then, if she seems receptive, you might ask, “How can I help?”

This question is delivered not out of your neediness (I want to avoid this tantrum), but out of compassion. It can also work to say, “Should we take a break?” The key is asking, not telling. Anything that helps your child not feel alone on the island is recommended, but this doesn’t require that you come up with a fix.

For children, the storms do pass. We can make the storm worse when we talk a lot. Be steady and calm while she has the visceral body wave of agitation. You are quietly there, or making wordless physical contact if that works for her. Try a hand on a shoulder, a little shoulder rub or bring her head close to you. Often this works better than verbal compassion. Still, don’t say, “Give me a hug!”

It’s essential for parents to figure out how to be that calm presence. Internally repeating a word like peace or a phrase like It’s OK, we will get through this storm may help. Part of this is about letting go of what you’ve made it mean for your child to be successful and accepting how things are.

Ultimately, redefine what it is to help your child. You may not help her complete the task, but you can help her learn how to ride out the storm of frustration.

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