It is an emotion that children feel, and parents deal with the consequences – frustration. Have you ever watched as your child tried to do something, only to be blocked somehow, and the frustration was visible on his face? The eyebrows start to furrow, his snose scrunches up in strange contortions, maybe the lip curls, or his fists start to clench and unclench. Frustration is setting in full force, and a full-on burst of anger might not be far behind.
Maybe we need to do more to help our children learn about why they are frustrated, saving both of us from the negative consequences of unacknowledged emotions. According to Dr. Jim Taylor, a clinical associate professor at the University of Denver and a specialist in the psychology of sports and parenting, parents need to help their children identify frustration and head it off at the pass before it begins a negative chain of emotional events. Easier said than done, right? Dr. Taylor gives some tangible ways parents can help their children deal with frustration without losing their own cool, and it begins with understanding the ideas behind emotion coaching.
What is emotion coaching?
Emotion coaching is the proactive approach parents can take to teach their children about emotions and how emotions work in our lives. By acknowledging emotions, giving them names, and validating them in our children when they are experiencing them, we are beginning the process of emotion coaching. Dr. John Gottman is the premiere expert on emotion coaching, breaking down the process of coaching into 5 steps, including helping them find resolutions when needed.
How can emotion coaching reduce frustration?
One of the intriguing points that Dr. Taylor points out to parents about frustration is the key relationship it plays with anger and despair. He describes a chain reaction of events, beginning with frustration left unresolved, moving to anger left unresolved, ending in despair. Repeated experiences with despair result in children who use an internal shut-off valve to stop themselves from trying things or setting goals.
If you have kids, you more than likely have seen their frustration levels fluctuate at certain points. Frustration can actually be a very positive emotion. It can be the trigger for problem solving and the motivating factor for finding a better way. When kids face frustrations, they are forced to find new ways to reach their goals. Problems occur when parents don’t acknowledge this frustration or teach their children how to acknowledge it.
Children simply do not have all of the skill sets required to solve all of their problems, so there will be situations where they are simply unable to reach their goals. Parents sometimes add to the problem by encouraging their children to just try harder. If the goal is unreasonable, we are just setting our kids up for increased frustration. Dr. Taylor warns parents to be observant of their children’s goals and be aware of the possibility for achievement. The reality is that trying harder is not always going to get our kids to reach their goals. Sometimes it is a matter of maturity, available resources, or environmental factors beyond their control.
How can parents help their kids handle frustration?
If you see that your child is becoming frustrated to the point of moving onto anger, help your child acknowledge the emotion of frustration. Use phrases like the following with your kids:
It looks like you’re getting frustrated. What is it that you are trying to do (or accomplish)?
When I get frustrated I take 10 deep breaths and think about how I can try something new to solve the problem I’m facing.
What do you think are some ways you could create a better ending to this situation? Statements like this one help even young children envision success. Once they can clearly see what their end goal looks like, it is easier to see how they might get there.
Maybe it is time to take a break and try to figure this out later when you feel calmer. It is important to give kids the option to take a break or adjust their goals.
Dr. Taylor reminds us of this important ability to recognize when it is time to take a break. For young kids this might even be a break to go run around outside and play. For older kids it might mean taking a day off from the task at hand and pursuing other more enjoyable activities. These breaks give kids the opportunities to find successes elsewhere and help reinforce that they can reach goals. Diversion is sometimes the best medicine for frustration overload.
The ability to take stock of the situation and adjust the goals is something that even adults have difficulty doing. We can help our kids learn this skill by encouraging them to look at the task in smaller chunks of success. Focusing on smaller goals can sometimes help reach the bigger picture while avoiding the overwhelming frustration that comes when one large goal can’t be met. If one or two small goals aren’t met, it doesn’t have to necessarily mean that the whole idea is a loss.
There will also be times where a positive break away from the situation will not be possible and creating smaller, more manageable goals will not help the situation. Make sure your children are able to give themselves permission to walk away and try something new another day.