Helping Your Child Deal with Frustration

I was trying to hang garland on our bannister.

I didn’t have anything to connect it to the railing with, so I thought it would just be easiest if I wrapped it. (Insert head shake and defeated scoff here.) Yes, I thought it would be easier to take this 15 foot, delicate, prickly, pinecone-covered and Christmas light-wrapped festive anaconda and thread it, inch by inch, through the tiny spaces between each spindle all the way down the entryway stairs. Nope.

I was simultaneously and distractedly trying to “catch” my son, who was pretending to be the most stubborn Pokémon in the history of imaginative Poké-play. It didn’t matter what I did. I hefted imaginary raspberries. I switched to invisible ultra balls. This creature was not going to let me add him to my pretend Pokédex.

So, in the midst of it all, I did what most mothers would do: I got frustrated. I let the garland fall at my feet. I told my three year old Pikachu that I needed a break. And I huffed my way down the stairs and into the kitchen, grumbling and letting my feet fall just a little too heavily with each step.

I immediately felt remorseful. For not giving my adorable preschooler my full attention. For letting myself get frustrated with such a trivial task. I was deciding my next course of action when I heard a small but firm voice behind me say,

“Mom. Try again. Ask for help. Or walk away.”

Touché, Oliver. Touché.

These are the phrases and steps that I taught him in toddlerhood, when I first saw signs of frustration emerging in the form of screams, kicks, grunts, and tears. Not only did these options help him then, but now he’s using them to help others.

I used this moment as a teachable one. We discussed that I had already walked away, and that I needed to find a new way to try again. We brainstormed and landed on using Christmas ribbon to tie the garland to the bannister. I even incorporated the third step: I asked for help. We worked together and were done in ten minutes. Then we went back to catching Pokémon. Maybe it was because I was fully present this time, but I was able to catch that swift little creature in just a few tries.

Isn’t it wonderful when the lessons we teach our kids end up boomerang-ing back at us to help us become better parents?self-regulation

I really do love those three phrases. Every child deals with frustration, but most parents tend to swoop in and fix the problem themselves. Teaching these options instead gives the child ownership and responsibility. It helps them learn to problem solve. It gives them room to reach frustration while also allowing time and space for them to learn how to come back down from that frustrated place on their own.

Have you see those Perplexus marble maze balls? Oliver has recently taken to ours. Just days after the garland incident, I heard the tell-tale loud breathing of deep concentration from the other room. I heard the marble making soft clicking sounds as he slowly lead it through the maze with careful twists and turns of his hands. And then I heard the loud thunk of the marble falling off the path, followed by a grunt of frustration and a loud crash that could only come from him throwing the ball across the room.

I made my way from the kitchen, ready to discuss his actions with him. But I stopped short when I heard him quietly tell himself: “Try again. Ask for help. Or walk away.” My heart was so full of pride, I don’t even remember which option he chose.

He doesn’t yet know that the order I taught him those phrases is the order I’d like him to approach most frustrating situations. But we’ll talk about that soon. And my hope is that I will one day send my child off to elementary school with self-sufficient problem solving strategies cued up and ready to go! If so, he’ll be a step ahead of most of the middle school students that came through my classroom. 😉

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