Five-year-old Mateo sits in front of the mirror, blowing air through his pursed lips. He wants to whistle, just like his grandpa. At first, as he blows gently, the faint notes seem promising. Excited, he blows a little harder, clenching his mouth into an O. But the more he tries, the worse he sounds. Suddenly he shouts, “I’ll never learn to whistle!” He bolts from his chair, flips it onto the floor, and launches himself onto his bed, where he lands in a sobbing heap.
Hearing the commotion, his grandfather peeks in and asks, “What’s the matter?”
“I stink at whistling! I’ll never be any good,” Mateo shrieks.
Frustration is inevitable in childhood, especially when a child struggles to master something new or when he’s told he can’t do or have something he wants. Most of us can remember these moments from our own childhoods, such as when we first tried to tie our shoes, ride a bike, or hold our breath underwater. We all get frustrated when we are unable, or forbidden, to do what we’ve set out to do. The resulting feelings of anger, discouragement, and despair can be overwhelming, particularly to young children.
The good news is that the challenges that lead predictably to frustration can be turned into opportunities for learning. With your help, your child can learn how to confront and overcome frustration and the feelings that go with it, a valuable skill that he’ll need his whole life long.
When She Says “I Can’t Do It!”
Depending on your child’s temperament, frustration might result in tears, silent seething and steaming, or blood-curdling shrieks and flying objects. The intensity of a child’s frustration is magnified by how insurmountable the barriers seem and how badly she wants to succeed. Until she does, his self-esteem is at stake. For a young child surrounded by adults who are competent in so many things she has yet to master, it is hard to believe that one day she, too, will master the same skills. “I’m no good at this” is only a short step away from “I’m no good at all” in a young child’s mind.
As a child faces each new challenge, he needs to learn three things:
How to control feelings of frustration. You can help him learn to soothe himself by demonstrating patience and self-control, and by suggesting self-calming strategies, such as cuddling with a favorite stuffed animal; singing a favorite song; taking a break and doing something fun; or beginning the task again with a smaller step so that there is a first success to build on. Your long-term goal is for him to learn to recognize when he’s frustrated and what he can do about it on his own.
How to believe in herself. You can help her hold on to her sense of self-worth by helping her remember her past successes – and the struggles that preceded them. Put her current struggle into perspective by recalling other times that she thought she’d never succeed, until she did. Help her learn to notice the strengths that she can count on to help her triumph — guts, determination, endurance, careful observation (no matter how fledgling some of these qualities may still be).
- How to keep on trying. You can help your child recognize that learning involves trial and error. Mastering a new skill takes patience, perseverance, practice, and the confidence that success will come. To a young child, achieving success, whether it’s writing his name or hitting a baseball for the first time, can seem monumental.
Instead of recognizing that failure is temporary, a child often concludes, “I’ll neversucceed.” That is why encouragement is by far the most important gift you can give your frustrated child. Take her dejection seriously, but help her look at her challenge differently: “Never,” you might reply, “is an awfully long time.” Eventually, she’ll learn from your encouraging words to talk herself out of giving up.
Helping Your Child Cope with “No”
The other form of childhood frustration arises when “I want” meets “You can’t.” When you tell your child that he can’t have that candy bar, or stay up past his bedtime, he’s bound to struggle. Once he gives in to your requests, of course, he’ll be angry and disappointed. Every day your child invests so much of his energy in fulfilling his desires, and he usually expects your support. But in these situations, you play a very different role: You say, “No. And I mean it!” Now rather than encouraging him to persevere when he can’t have his way, you need to help him let go of his wish and accept reality.
Though she may hold you responsible for her frustration, you still need to help her get it under control. The first two lessons she will need to learn from these types of experiences are similar to the ones she will learn when facing new challenges: how to cool down heated emotions and develop an understanding that her value as a person is independent of always getting what she wants.
The third lesson, though, is for parents. When your child can’t get what he wants, you must learn perseverance and endurance. If you have wavered in the past, for example, about candy at the checkout counter, your child will be even more frustrated the next time you try to say no. You can certainly empathize with your child’s wish at first, even if you’ve decided that it can’t be satisfied: “I know how badly you want it, but I just can’t let you.” Then, if you stick to your guns, your child will learn that he can balance his wishes with the demands of reality, just as you do.
A child who fails to learn these lessons is bound to be unhappy. She’ll take such frustration personally, focusing on what she can’t have rather than learning to accept that she can’t always get what she wants. Teaching these important lessons takes a delicate balance of empathy and limits. When you remain calm, it is easier for your child to be reassured that her desires will not be allowed to rage out of control, and that not getting this or that may turn out to be less important than it first seems. If you are hesitant about saying no when you must, you miss out on teaching your child that living with unsatisfied wishes is a necessity, and not necessarily such a terrible thing.
Try these strategies to help your child live with the reality that all his wishes cannot be satisfied, while still sustaining his motivation to express and fulfill his needs:
Be firm, and stand your ground.
Pick your battles. Look for opportunities to balance no with yes.
Offer choices that you can live with — which book to read, which ice cream flavor to eat, and so on. Don’t give choices that you’ll need to take back.
Empathize with your child’s frustration, and let her know that it is understandable. But don’t give in to dramatizing her disappointment. She needs to learn to put it into perspective.
Make it clear that other people’s needs are important, too, even when facing them means dealing with frustration. Help your child feel proud that he can handle his own frustration in order to be fair or helpful to others.
Don’t protect your child from her own frustration. She may come to feel that she can’t count on herself to face reality, and that you don’t think she’s up to learning to manage her feelings.
- Remember that your child will feel reassured both by your limits and by your respect for his growing ability to settle down and control himself.
With each new accomplishment, your child learns the indispensable value of patience, practice, and perseverance. With each drama of unfulfilled desire overcome, she gains confidence in her ability to withstand frustration and disappointment, to be the master of her feelings rather than a victim of them.