Teaching frustration tolerance to kids
Frustration is an emotion that is felt daily throughout our entire lives. If we can teach our children how to deal appropriately with it when they are young it will benefit them and their interactions with peers, authority figures, and family members forever.
First help your child recognize and label the emotion of frustration in the moment. When you see the emotion escalating say, “It looks like you are frustrated.” If you have labeled frustration while they are feeling the emotion, then the idea of calming down when frustrated will not be new when you begin to teach. As with any new behavior you teach your child, use Preventive Teaching to introduce the new skill.
When using Preventive Teaching to increase frustration tolerance, we want to focus most on its positive opposite of staying calm. If we can reduce a negative emotion before it gets too big then it will be easier and faster to calm down. As a metaphor, if you light a single match the flame is easy to blow out, but if you use that same lit match to set the couch on fire, the fire will quickly spread and be very difficult to put out. In this way, we need to help children calm down when the emotion is first felt because once they start acting inappropriately it easily spirals into increased negative behavior that is difficult to control. I’m going to refer to a 3-step process that can be applied to any emotion, but especially works well when dealing with frustration: identifying triggers, understanding physical cues, and applying reducers.
Help your child (young children will need more parent involvement) to identify the situations in which they commonly become frustrated. The causes of frustration are endless and are different for every child. In a related article, Katie Hurley, a licensed child and adolescent psychotherapist, gives a comprehensive list of the most common frustration triggers to watch for:
- negative peer interactions (or perceived negative peer interactions)
- challenging academics (yes, even in preschool—cutting with scissors can be very frustrating)
- feeling misunderstood by adults or peers
- lack of control
- unexpected situations
Trigger identification might occur during a moment of frustration or in anticipation of a potentially frustrating situation, however, when using Preventive Teaching help them identify as many triggers as possible so they will prepared in all types of situations.
Emotions cause a physiological response before a conscious reaction can occur. Physical cues are indicators of your body’s response to emotion. Some physical cues that are often referred to are sweaty palms and a racing heart when seeing the person you love. Negative emotions such as frustration and anger often have physical cues such as a tight jaw, closed fists, strained voice, and tense body. Parents can recognize and identify the physical cues of their children from watching them become frustrated every day. While using Preventive Teaching, explain the cues you have observed, and then help them identify any additional cues. In the moment of your child’s frustration, point out their physical cues to them: “I see that your jaw is tight and your hand is in a fist. It looks like you’re getting frustrated.” Once the child has recognized they are feeling frustrated by evidence of physical cues, then you can move on to helping them manage the emotion by applying techniques called Reducers.
Research has shown that deep breaths are an extremely effective method of calming down. Slow, controlled breathing triggers the vagus nerve to release a neurotransmitter called acytelcholine, which lowers heart rate and blood pressure and increases your ability to focus. In addition to deep breathing, other possible reducers include counting, controlled muscle relaxation, giving a hug, and holding a favorite toy or object. It may take several frustrating situations to figure out which reducer works best for your child. Practice, practice, practice After they understand their personal triggers, physical cues, and most effective reducers you must practice with them. Role-playing is essential for practicing any new skill, but even more important when teaching your child how to manage difficult emotions. When emotions are high, our ability to make appropriate decisions is impaired. If you and your child have repeatedly practiced the correct way to respond, then the appropriate response will be more automatic.
Here are a few final tips for teaching frustration tolerance
- Manage your own frustrations appropriately. Our children learn most from what we do. This is an area that I am continually trying to improve in. I love teaching social skills like emotion management, but dealing with frustration is one of my own weaknesses and I have already watched my daughter negatively react to a trigger exactly like she has seen me do in the past. If you are like me, work on it together with your child. If this isn’t an area you struggle with, then your child will be that much further ahead in learning to react appropriately.
- Establish rewards and consequences for their using or not using the calming down techniques you have practiced. Start rewarding small progress immediately. Reward any attempt to apply a reducer or a reduction in the time it took them to calm down.
- Do not give in when you see their emotions start to rise just to avoid a tantrum, even when you are in public. Parents often wonder why their child continues to struggle with managing frustration without realizing that they are unintentionally encouraging the negative behavior. If your child learns that they can get what they want when they act inappropriately then they will see no reason to change the behavior.
- Remember that change takes time. I know from my own personal experience of dealing with frustration that it takes time to train your mind and body to respond differently. Luckily, your children have you to remind them to apply the appropriate techniques in the moment. Even if your child has been doing well with the skill, it is normal to occasionally regress. Review how to deal with frustration on a regular basis. Provide frequent rewards when first teaching how to stay calm and then intermittently reward once they have mastered the skill.
Make sure to check out these other parenting guides also!