Helping Children with Frustration

First Published in Nurture Magazine

My 20 month old kept trying to join two train track pieces but they refused to slot together. He was getting cross and I felt tension starting to rise in me. I leaned over and put the pieces together for him. He looked at me and screamed, picked up the track and threw it across the room. Clearly he didn’t want my help, he wanted to do it himself.

This is an area I’ve struggled in as a parent.  I find it so hard to stand back and offer the right amount of support when my kids are frustrated. And it turns out this is a surprisingly critical aspect of our relationships with our children.

My first glimpse into the significant role we play responding to our children’s frustrations came when I was watching video footage of children trying to solve problems set by the highly acclaimed Attachment Theory researcher Alan Schore. He has spent decades filming and documenting parent-child relationships. His studies are intergenerational and offer a tantalising glimpse into how we so often repeat the ways we were parented. In the films I was watching, 5 and 6 year old children were asked to solve a puzzle. The researchers were observing the way the parents intervened. Neither the parents nor the children knew that the puzzles were developmentally a little too tricky for the kids.

It made fascinating viewing. Some parents stood back as their child got increasingly frustrated but did little to help them through their struggles. Others, like me, jumped in at the first sign of difficulties and pretty much solved the problems for the kids. Neither of these two responses is helpful. Strong parent-child relationships are seen when the parent allows the child to experience frustration whilst offering support towards solving the problem without taking over.

It’s helpful to recognise how frustration is a natural part of learning. You’ll notice how struggles happen before new skills are learnt or new thinking can occur. A 5 year old will inevitably fall off her bike many times before she learns to ride it and a toddler will put the square shape into the round hole again and again before he figures out where it should go. We need to appreciate the value of struggle as part of the learning experience, as psychologist Dr Lara Markham puts it, “that’s how we develop mastery muscles and the confidence to tackle the next hurdle”1

If we jump in too soon and rescue our child from their frustration we are short circuiting their ability to deal with challenges and their capacity to develop persistence. We all do better in life if we have what psychologists call “high frustration tolerance”, the ability to deal with life’s struggles and not give up too easily. When we step in too soon, without meaning to, we teach our children to fear what they are trying to do.

Equally we don’t want to stand back completely as our kids struggle and fail. Rather than building resilience, being hands off sets kids up to feel they aren’t clever enough, talented enough or good enough. If we let them wallow in their frustration they become locked in, what author and therapist Larry Cohen call “towers of powerlessness and isolation”2, they feel alone and incompetent.

We need to find a middle ground.

Here are some ways we can helpfully respond to our child’s frustrations and struggles:

1) Scaffolding: this is an attachment theory research term that simply means helping your child just enough so they can do it themselves. It’s a fine art that’s beautifully illustrated by this example from RIE parenting expert Janet Lansbury on supporting a toddler through a challenge:

Sage placed a stacking cup inside one of the buses. She tried to pull the cup back out. I sensed her mom wanting to help, but resisting the urge.  “Is it stuck?” I asked.  She fiddled with the cup for a moment, then left it and moved on to something else.

Later Sage climbed onto one of the large wooden blocks, sat on top and seemed unsure about getting down again. “Are you trying to get down?” I asked. She reached out for me as if to ask to bring her down. “I won’t let you fall,” I said, not touching her, but just spotting. She was hesitant and seemed uneasy. “Do you feel stuck up there?” I asked. She reached her arms towards me again to help her, and though I felt like a meanie, I resisted. “You want me to help you down, but I’m going to let you do it, and I won’t let you fall.”

Sage spent a few moments inching across the top of the block and looking down at the floor before she gained the courage to slide down the side, reaching her feet a few inches until she touched the floor. “You did it.” Thrilled, Sage pranced victoriously across the room towards her smiling parents.3

2) Listening to feelings:  meaning moving in close and listening as a child experiences disappointment, cries in frustration or gets annoyed about struggling to do something. By listening to their feelings we act as an anchor for our child and help them move through their difficult emotions. Our presence lets them risk disappointment and helps them persist in their learning and think more clearly. By not jumping in and helping, we open up the possibility of a child feeling frustrated, and it can feel strange to open space for those feelings. Aletha Solter, author and psychologist, notes that “not allowing children to express their frustration can lead to lowered self confidence or ability to think well in new situations4

Here’s how one mum I know listened to her daughter’s frustrations as she learnt to ride a bike:

My five-year-old daughter hadn’t been riding without her training wheels for long. She could pedal and ride along fine after getting an initial push from me, but she was determined to be able to start up on her own. So off she and I went to the park to practice!

She kept trying to get going on her own, sometimes insisting that I not help and other times directing me at how exactly I should help. She fell sometimes and I’d hear minor expressions of disappointment (“Aw, man!”) or grunts or groans. But she’d always get up and insist, “I’m okay!” and hop back up and try again.

After 15 minutes or so, she finally did it! She hooted and hollered and was so proud of herself. The next time she tried, however, she fell. She didn’t get physically hurt, but it seemed that she was finally ready to let out all of the frustration she’d been collecting throughout the long ascent of the learning curve.

On the ground, where she fell, she yelled at me, crying, “Mommy, you should have helped me!”

I got down on the ground with her, letting her be angry at me while I listened. “I hear you, sweetheart. I’m right here helping you now,” I said calmly.

“I don’t want your help!” she cried, batting me away. I stayed close, though, listening and pouring in my warm attention, ignoring stares of people walking by in the park.

After five or so minutes of tears, she wanted to give it another try. She’d wiped that window of frustration and it seemed her confidence was renewed. She didn’t get it the first time, and there was a little whimper of disappointment. But she got it the next time, and the next, and the next, and the next.

When she saw her Daddy a little while later, she gushed with pride about what she could now do, and she talked excitedly about her next trip to the park, when she would practice how to brake. A couple months later, I am happy to report that my daughter needs no help while biking, and rides with confidence when riding solo, next to me, or alongside her friends.5

2) Playfully reversing roles: games that put children in a powerful role, especially if this brings laughter, are very helpful when kids are unable to do what others can do and are feeling incompetent. The laughter helps release some emotional tension and being given a powerful role gives them some relief from feeling powerless. We can help them move through their frustrations and feelings of incompetency by making ourselves the goofy ones who can’t do the skill they are struggling with. Toddlers find it hilarious if adults start stumbling and tripping and playfully having difficulty standing and walking. And you can use this idea with older kids, as long as you take care not to make them feel like you are making fun of them. Here’s how Larry Cohen skillfully used this strategy with his daughter:

The first time my daughter tried cross country skiing, she whined and complained bitterly…. it took me a long time to realize that she felt incompetent and was frustrated by how often she fell (or almost fell) and how hard it was for her to get up. All I could see was that she fell and I didn’t. So I made a bid show of falling myself all four limbs and ski poles and skis up in the air, aiming in different directions, shouting about snow getting in my underwear. She laughed and laughed, then proceeded to enjoy herself immensely for the rest of the time, and even asked if we could ski again the next day.”6

Larry’s success was in reversing the roles and becoming the less competent skier. He let his daughter be in the position of being relatively good at skiing, which gave her a burst of confidence that let her enjoy it.

Finding a good balance between giving support and offering space in times of frustration is a very powerful part of building a secure and connected relationship with our child. It is a critical area in how we relate to them and done well can gift them with high frustration tolerance, persistence and the ability to cope well with life’s challenges.

1 Lara Markham “Peaceful Parents Happy Kids” p.230
2 Larry Cohen “Playful Parenting”
4 Aletha Solter, “Helping Young Children Flourish” p.76
6 Larry Cohen, “Playful Parenting” p.115