Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr. Stacey Spencer Provides Tips for Parents about Helping Children Manage Frustration

Frustration is inevitable for young children. There are shelves that can’t be reached, shoes that can’t be tied, baseballs that can’t be hit and parents and other adults saying “no” to a child’s most fervent desires. Frustration isn’t necessarily a negative emotion. Dealt with constructively, it can help children learn to overcome obstacles and tolerate disappointment. “The mistake most children make when frustrated is to just try harder, to keep doing the same thing over and over,” says clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Stacey Spencer of Morris Psychological Group.

“Unfortunately, that seldom results in success and the child’s emotions can quickly escalate to anger and even despair, which are indeed negative emotions and can be overwhelming for young children. It’s up to parents to help the child learn to overcome frustration and find solutions to the obstacles that confront them.”

Sometimes that is easier said than done. A parent’s immediate inclination when a child is frustrated and upset is to step in and do whatever is necessary to make the child happy. “While stepping in is the right thing to do before frustration escalates, removing the roadblock right away or giving in to the child’s demands may not be the best strategy,” says Dr. Spencer. “It’s better to turn the problem into an opportunity to help the child learn how to manage frustration.”  Dr. Spencer offers suggestions to parents for helping children cope with these emotions.

Coping with “I Can’t”

  • Make your own behavior a model for your child: Let your child see you manage your own frustration by staying positive and looking for solutions. Avoid vociferous expressions of impatience and anger.
  • Encourage expression of emotion: Let your child know that it’s OK to express her frustration verbally and even to cry but help her learn to calm herself by soothingly asking what the problem is and discussing solutions.  A hug or a cuddle with a favorite stuffed animal may help.
  • Take a break: Sometimes continuing to tackle the problem head-on will just exacerbate the frustration. Suggest stepping back for a little while. Sing a song, get some physical exercise, have a snack. Have him do something he can do successfully to boost confidence.
  • Break it down: If the original problem presents an insurmountable obstacle, try again with just a single step that can be accomplished successfully and built on.
  • Remember past successes: Remind your child of previous challenges that he has overcome and how it seemed he would never succeed – and then did. 

Remember that the goal is for the child to learn to recognize his own frustration and be able to deal with it on his own. Every time you help him quiet down and approach a problem calmly, he is learning a valuable lesson in patience and perseverance and is taking a step toward that goal.

Coping with “No”

  • Stick to your guns: Empathize with the child’s desire but stand firm. Giving in once will make the child’s frustration worse next time.
  • Stay positive and calm: Don’t let the child’s heated emotions affect your own reaction. If you are in control of your emotions, it will be easier for the child to control hers.
  • Offer an alternative:  A cookie after lunch, a favorite game after nap, an extra story at bedtime…something the child will want that you can say “yes” to.  

Helping a child deal with the frustration of “no” requires a strategy virtually opposite that of coping with the inability to accomplish a task. “This is a case in which allowing perseverance to achieve the child’s desired result is not the best outcome,” says Dr. Spencer. “The child must learn to accept ‘no’ and let go of the goal. But the lesson learned is similar: to be able to deal with the emotion on his own and understand that he can tolerate not always getting everything he wants.”

Every time you help your child cope with frustration, she is gaining experience in recognizing and understanding her feelings and learning an important skill. Dr. Spencer concludes: “Children who learn to successfully manage the frustration that is unavoidable in their young lives will develop confidence that they can deal with disappointment and will more easily cope with challenges and difficulties later on.”

Stacey L. Spencer, Ed.D., provides psychotherapy with a cognitive behavioral approach and specializes in neuropsychological assessment of children, adolescents and adults following brain injuries and in connection with attention and learning differences.