Four-year-old Sylvia throws the game pieces, crumples the paper, and kicks the wall. She screams: "I'm never going to be able to do this!"

Ariana works hard on a drawing, then quietly pushes it away when it is only partly finished. She erases her name until the paper begins to tear, then leaves the table and picks up a book to read. She's mature socially and has advanced language skills, yet she is more and more hesitant to try new activities.

Brian will not approach the book corner and shows no interest in any of the art materials. He is an active, social, athletic boy, but he seems to avoid many of the activities most children his age love.

All these children are dealing with frustration, but they express it in different ways. Frustration is the tense, unhappy feeling that results when you can't do something you should be able to do or want to do. An adult may feel moderately frustrated, acknowledge it, and decide to temporarily leave a task, get help with it, or try another approach. These are good strategies for children to use, but first children must learn to recognize and accept frustration. To understand what is causing it, they must also develop enough impulse control to hold back from an intense immediate response.

For Sylvia, frustration quickly turns into anger directed at the task (or materials)-"I hate letters!" or "Crayons are dumb!" A child might direct this anger at adults-"I'm never going to do that, and you can't make me!" Sometimes a child will direct her frustration at herself-- "I'm stupid" or "I hate the way I write!"

Then there are the more subtle expressions of frustration, as in Brian's avoidance of anything to do with reading and writing. Brian avoids these areas because they are hard for him. Unfortunately, he also avoids experiences that could eventually help make tasks such as drawing and recognizing letters easier for him.

Ariana's frustration has different roots. Her perfectionism, which is related to her pleasure in her achievements, leads her to try tasks that are too difficult for her. She then fails to meet her own overly high standards. After making repeated attempts that don't seem to work, Ariana stops trying. Like Brian, she pays for this by missing out on helpful experiences and adds to her own self-directed pressure.

Developmental Background

Most children go through peaks of frustration between the ages of one and three. They are discovering that there is so much they want to do but cannot or may not. Young children often express their frustration in tantrums. At that point many of them learn the word frustrated, and parents and teachers help them to find compromises and alternatives and to develop at least some degree of patience.

In the preschool years, further sources of frustration emerge: comparisons with peers, new expectations, and observations of older children (especially siblings) and adults. A child may be prone to frustration if he has minor delays in some developmental area, if he has easily succeeded at many things and does not remember the process of learning them, or if he is developing a somewhat perfectionistic personality style.

Helping Children Handle Frustration

Here's how you can help children cope:

  • Identify how individual children express frustration and the activities (or social situations) that tend to elicit it.
  • Provide alternatives to unacceptable expressions of frustration.
  • Explain that everyone, including adults, feels frustrated sometimes. Talk about the process people go through of not being able to do something and then practicing and getting better at it.
  • Finally, help children develop a strategy of taking one small step at a time in approaching new things. Engage parents as team members, if appropriate.

Remember to give lots of encouragement for small accomplishments. If a child reaches a plateau with a new task, celebrate how far she has come. Reassure her that, in her own time, frustration will diminish, reappearing occasionally as a signal of her hard work.