We that spend a lot of time with children have to help them deal with frustration. Probably frequently.
I knew a child once, let’s call her Lucy. Lucy was an amazing artist for her age and she would draw all day if you let her. If she was working on a drawing of a person, she would pose in the mirror to understand how to draw specific positions. She was only 4 years old, and she was better at drawing than many adults I know!
But Lucy had a problem. Lucy would get frustrated if her art wasn’t exactly perfect.
One day she decided to draw a snake. She had never drawn a snake before, so it was all new, and all from her imagination.
Her first drawing made her upset. She growled a little and flipped the paper over. Her second snake made her upset. She started to cry as she crumpled the paper and threw it away.
She got more paper. Snake after snake she was unhappy with her art work, and snake after snake she got more and more frustrated until she was crying on the floor under the table.
Lucy was a child with special talents but she needed a lot of extra help to learn how to deal with frustration. These are the steps that helped me help her and many other children.
STEP 1: SET THE ENVIRONMENT UP FOR SUCCESS
Before we even start, we need to set up their environment for maximum success.
This means making sure the materials, toys, and room set-up are age appropriate and safe for them.
I have some fabulous paper books that I’m really excited about reading to my son someday–but he’s not ready for them. So they sit on a high shelf out of his reach. Not only would he probably rip them up if he got ahold of them, I can imagine he would get really frustrated not understanding how they work. So for now, we’re sticking to board books.
Likewise, I have removed his “baby” toys and put them in the closet until the next baby comes around. This way he’s not distracted by something that is boring to him and could lead to frustration in his desire for it to do more.
Intentional & Minimal
This also means being intentional and minimal with the materials and toys that are available.
I don’t mean go throw out or donate all their toys (although, I’m sure there are some people reading that may need to!)
What works great for classrooms and playrooms alike is rotating:
- Keep out a minimal number of toys so that each item is easy to see and reach without having to dig into toy boxes, knock things over, or move things around.
- Whatever is not on the shelf can remain in the closet or on higher shelves in baskets.
- Once you see that something on the shelf is not being played with, switch it out for something “new” from the closet.
By minimizing and being intentional, the child has fewer options, which actually can help inspire more play. With too many options and inappropriate materials, it’s easy for children to get overwhelmed and stressed, leading to moments of frustration.
If you want to learn more about setting up a beautiful and intentional play space that encourages independent play, I recommend checking out The Parenting Junkie. She has some great articles, videos, and webinars that have taught me a lot.
STEP 2: TAKE 10 DEEP BREATHS BEFORE INTERVENING
So, you see your child getting frustrated and losing their temper. Quickly assess if the situation is dangerous and requires your intervention. If it doesn’t, take 10 deep breaths.
Often children need to express their frustration verbally, like growling or crying. Or they may need to get physical, like with stomping or ripping up their paper. As long as the situation is safe (they aren’t taking out their frustrations on their brother, for example) wait to see if they sort it out themselves.
By giving them 10 breaths, it gives them a chance to solve the problem on their own. Or simply to go through the motions of feeling that big feeling of frustration and then move past it. If the frustration is with another child, it gives them a chance to solve the problem together. Of course, as soon as it gets violent you should step in.
After 10 breaths and observing, if they’re still struggling and it seems like they need your help, go ahead and step in.
STEP 3: LISTEN TO & HELP VERBALIZE THEIR PROBLEM & FRUSTRATIONS
When you step in to help, don’t try to solve their problem right away. I know we know the easy solution. “Here, let me draw a snake for you. Or we can print it from the computer.”
Don’t do it! Part of being little is feeling strong emotions and learning how to cope and problem solve. If it’s a toy or project that’s challenging for them, they need to learn themselves. If we constantly do things for them that they’re capable of doing after a little frustration and struggle, we’ll still be tying their shoes when they’re 13-years-old!
Instead of fixing the problem for them, ask them what the problem is. Observe their feelings, let them do most of the talking here. “I see you’re feeling frustrated. What’s happening?”
Once they’ve verbalized it, say it back to them. This helps them process and make sense of it “You’re angry because you’re not happy with your snake drawings?”
If it’s an argument between two children, make sure they both have a chance to speak, and repeat what each child has said. Try your best to not choose sides (I know sometimes that is difficult, especially if you saw what happened), and coach them towards solving their problem together.
STEP 4: HELP THEM CALM DOWN
Sometimes all it takes is being heard and a child will calm down. Maybe they’ll decide to move on, or maybe after being listened to they’re good to go back to their play. If they’re still crying, screaming, or frustrated, help them calm down.
Every child is so different, you know better what this looks like than I do! Lucy hated hugs when she was upset, but if you got on the floor under the table with her and talked to her, she would eventually calm down.
Try a Story
With older children, you can verbalize to them how to deal with frustration and how to calm down. I always love to tell a story to the child about how I used those coping skills. I knew a child once who would hit his friends whenever he got frustrated. One day I told him a story.
I said “You know, I live with Music Man John.” (My husband John had been in to visit to play music at circle, so he was a mini-celebrity to them.) “And sometimes, he makes me so mad! Even though he’s my best friend, sometimes I get so frustrated with him I want to hit him! But…I know that’s not nice to do to my best friend, so you know what I do? I stick my hands in my pockets. That way, my hands can’t hurt.”
His violent behaviors seemed to improve after that. Not entirely, but a bit.
I ran into his dad a couple years later and he told me that ever since, whenever his son gets angry he sticks his hands in his pockets. Once they asked him why and he said, “It’s what teacher Amber does when she gets angry.”
All because of a small (fictional) story I told him while he was in trouble for hitting someone. I had given him several coping skills before, “Next time, please hit the ground instead.” or “Take 10 deep breaths” But that was the one that stuck.
So keep trying. They’ll pick up on the one that works for them.
STEP 5: ASK QUESTIONS
Once they’ve calmed down, if there is still a problem to solve, it’s time to solve it. Instead of just giving them the solution, lead them to it. Ask questions that get their brains working to solve the problem.
For example, with Lucy, questions I could ask would be “What do you not like about your snakes?” “The teeth look wrong to you?” “What do you think they should look like?”
“Do snakes have lots of teeth or just a couple? Are they super duper sharp like a tiger or kind of flat like our teeth?”
If they don’t get there on their own, offer some solutions.
“I have some ideas, can I share? Maybe we could find a picture of a snake you could look at to draw from?”
“What do you think would happen if you put the teeth coming from the top?”
These sorts of questions will hopefully lead the child to their own solution, instead of just saying “Here, I’ll draw it for you.” or “The snake’s teeth look like this.”
STEP 6: STAY CALM YOURSELF!
Most of the time I find it incredibly challenging to stay calm when a child is getting frustrated. Often their frustrations end up being directed at other people, especially the person they feel safest with (their mom, usually). Staying calm is of the utmost importance when we’re teaching them how to deal with frustration.
“If you model an unhealthy response to the frustration you experience in your life, for example, with impatience or anger, they may learn that this is an appropriate way to deal with frustration. If you are calm, positive, and look for solutions when you get frustrated, your children will likely adopt this approach to frustration.” – Psychology Today
They really feed off of our energy and moods. Working in a variety of different classrooms really taught me that; the teachers that were able to remain calm, had a peaceful way of solving problems and had a magical amount of patience had the calmest, most well-behaved students. The teachers with short tempers who got frustrated or loud had chaotic classrooms.
Be honest with them. If you’re starting to lose your temper or get frustrated with them–tell them! “I’m frustrated right now because you’re yelling at me when I’m trying to help you.”
This gives you an opportunity to show them the coping skills you’ve taught them in action.
It’s not a fun moment to have, but it’s actually very beneficial for children to see this; to understand that adults have strong emotions too. But that we’ve (hopefully) become skilled at coping with them.
OUR GOAL TO DEAL WITH FRUSTRATION
Our goal is not to regulate their strong emotions: that’s their job.
How to understand and deal with frustrations and other big feelings is one of the major things that young children are really starting to learn. We can set a good example, be a stable place of comfort and safety, and give them the coping skills they need.
That way they can keep their cool, even when snake after snake is making them feel frustrated.