Encouraging an Easily Frustrated Child

In this episode: The mother of a 2.5 year old writes that her boy gets frustrated easily when he attempts new things, and then gets angry and “demands I do it for him.” She says she tries to be encouraging and accepting of his emotions, but she wants to know if Janet has any suggestions how she might communicate more effectively with her son.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to a question that came on my Facebook page from the parent of a two and half year old whose son becomes quickly frustrated by new challenges and seems to end up demanding that she do it for him. She’s concerned that he doesn’t trust himself, so she wants to make sure that she’s responding in a way that lets him know that she had confidence in him, and she’s wondering how to communicate that.

Here’s the message I received on my Facebook page:

“Hi, Janet. I have a two and a half year old son. I have noticed increasingly that when he attempts new things, if he does not achieve what he’s hoping for on the first or second attempt, frustration seems to appear quickly, and he insistently directs or demands I do it for him. ‘Mama, do it.’ I’ve tried to provide gentle encouragement and show my confidence in his ability to continue trying or to offer the minimum help required, but often these situations, when I don’t step in and do what he’s asking, seem to invite strong emotions and anger directed both at the activity attempted and at me. This doesn’t worry me, as most of the time I feel I can sit with acceptance of these strong emotions, although sometimes I struggle with the insistent demands for me to do things. However, I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for ways I could respond that would help communicate my faith to my son that I have confidence that he’s capable of many of these tasks or activities. I feel like he’s looking to me to do things because he does not trust himself to be able to do them. Any thoughts you have would be really appreciated.”

Okay, so I want to start with what she says at the end here because I think it’s important to understand what’s going on when children express this kind of seemingly overblown frustration. I don’t believe it’s that he doesn’t trust himself to be able to do these things. I mean, that can happen as children get older if we are always the one that’s fixing it. Or, if we are uncomfortable with frustration, then we can actually give children that message. But at two and a half, he does not have that message yet. I would take that concern out of the mix here. It’s not that he doesn’t trust himself to be able to do it.

This mother says that she’s looking for suggestions for ways she could respond that would help communicate her faith in him and her confidence that he is capable. The best way to communicate those things are to actually believe them and not try to communicate them. Not try to tell him this, but to really believe it ourselves. To believe he can do this, maybe not now, but at some point he’s going to be able to do this.

And more importantly, to believe and understand that frustration is healthy to express. It’s not a problem. It’s not a situation that we need to do something about.

This mother does sound like she has a good attitude towards emotions because she says that most of the time she can sit and accept, and that is also actually what will give him the message that she believes in him. She believes he is safe going to these frustrating places in himself and feeling them all the way.

That’s what we have to believe in our children, that this is normal, that this is healthy. We perceive it as just part of life and part of learning and part of problem solving.

We can probably all relate to getting to those dead ends or when it all seems like it’s not working and we get so frustrated and we just want to give up right there, and sometimes we do. Then, we come back to it if it’s important. If it’s important for us to work on and it’s something we genuinely want to work on, we come back to it.

The hard thing for us as parents sometimes is to focus less on the specific situation that’s happening there in terms of the problem that he’s trying to solve and wanting him to get to the win at the end, wanting him to be able to do it. It would be better if we saw that, you know what? There’s a reason he’s getting so frustrated about this and it’s probably not really about this. It’s about these changes that are going on in his life, that he’s starting a new school, that I’m expecting a baby, that he had a caregiver once in a while and now she’s going to be gone. Those kinds of transitions and stressors are what get expressed through these frustrating activities.

Oftentimes the child does know how to do it and has done it before, but they still go to that place of, “I can’t do this,” and that should be very telling. That is showing us that, you know what? He’s using this. I mean, children are so brilliant at this. It just constantly amazes me how brilliant they are at processing their emotions. They will instinctively find something that they can be struggling with, and that helps them open up that tea kettle spout and let out the steam, and the steam seems huge compared to what’s actually going on. That’s because the specific situation provided the outlet for that child to explode, like the child needs to. It sounds like he needs to explode a bit, and he needs to 100% know that that’s okay. He knows that by you really showing him it’s okay more than saying anything about it.

When she says in the beginning of this note that when he attempts new things, if he does not achieve what he’s hoping for on the first or second attempt, frustration seems to appear quickly, and he insistently directs or demands I do it for him. Children usually don’t go quickly to asking us to do it for them, unless they sense that we are involved in really wanting them to be able to do it. That we are a little bit uncomfortable there, at least a little bit uncomfortable. Or that we do do it for him, usually. But otherwise they don’t generally go to that. He is going to that, for whatever reason. I would see that as, in a sense, it’s like part of the tantrum. It’s part of the frustration that he’s saying, “I need you to do it. I need you to do it. I need you to do it. You’ve got to do this.” It’s the way children will say things during a tantrum like, “Go away. I don’t like you.” It’s all part of the way the emotion is being expressed.

If he’s asking for help, I would definitely be close by. I would say, “Wow, I hear you wanting me to do it,” and I would come close. I would be there to help, but the way I would help would look different from the kind of help that does it for him and make sure that he gets to the end. I would be the emotionally supportive help. What this mother’s been doing, she says, is trying to provide gentle encouragement and show my confidence in his ability to continue trying.

I wouldn’t urge children to keep trying because that puts pressure on them that they’ve got to do it for us. I wouldn’t even give gentle encouragement per se. I would encourage by being there, by being calm. I would acknowledge, “That is really hard. That’s hard to do. You’re really struggling with that,” giving him that kind of support.

But again, the real encouragement comes when we aren’t afraid of him getting frustrated and him not doing it, not completing the task. Maybe he throws it down and he has a big melt down over that, and that would be a very positive thing to happen because he’s venting some feelings he really needs to vent there that got all caught up in that activity.

Again, to be specific, the way this would work is he starts to try something, he’s not getting it, he gets frustrated, we trust the frustration. He says, “Mama, do it.” We acknowledge, “Yeah, you really want me to do that for you. I hear you.” Or, even less than that. Just like, “I hear you. I hear you,” and nodding your head, but knowing that he’s in the middle of something there.

He’s not rationally saying, “Mother, can you do this for me?” He’s in the middle of his emotion. So letting that be, trusting it, not providing the encouragement or trying to show confidence in his ability, “I think you can really do this. You’re good at these,” or whatever that looked like for this mother, what would maybe seem like helpful encouragement, coaxing, or whatever. Because what children actually hear in that is, “She’s not really comfortable with me being in this emotion either. She’s not comfortable. She’s trying to get me through this. She’s trying to help me through it instead of trusting that it’s there for a reason and leaving it at that.”

What’s interesting to me and very telling here is that she says, “When I don’t step in and do what he’s asking, it seems to invite strong emotions and anger directed both at the activity attempted and at me.” Yes. The activity’s helping him vent it, but the person that he really needs to be able to vent with is his mother. So, “It’s this activity, but I need to share this with you. I need to share this with my mother,” you know? And often times there are other things going on here. There’s some change going on in the family. There’s some stress going on for the child. That’s often what these explosions are really about. I wouldn’t step in and do what he’s asking because, again, he’s asking it out of a place of frustration.

I think we also have to realize that, just like us, when children get frustrated about doing something, it’s not because the thing isn’t getting done. It’s because they’re not able to do it themselves, and that’s what they want. They want to be able to do it themselves. It might make them feel momentarily better when Mama comes and does it for him, but it’s really not a very satisfying feeling. I guess I say this all the time on this podcast and in my articles, trust the feelings. Let the feelings be. That’s the best thing he could do is to share these feelings and frustration with the wonderful mother he loves.

This mother says it doesn’t worry her, but I think maybe she’s still a little bit … She’s just not completely confident with really knowing that there’s a reason for the feelings and that it doesn’t need to worry her at all, and that he’s going to get all the messages she wants him to get from her trusting his process and trusting his feelings. This doesn’t mean that we never help a child do anything, either. It’s understanding what children really want in these situations. They don’t always want what they say in the moment deep down. It would be a lot easier if they did, wouldn’t it?

Now, if he wasn’t in this place of strong emotion and it was something where he just said, “Oh, can you help me with this, Mom?” Again, I would come close and say, “Yeah, sure, I can. Let’s see. What are you trying to do here?” and I would still keep bouncing it back to him so that he could do as much of it as he could. And then I would gauge… is this something that he really needs to achieve? Is there a way that I can do a tiny thing and still allow him to be the one that finishes it, owns it?

For example, sometimes children are trying to open something, like a jar with a screw on lid or do buttons on a baby doll’s clothes. With the jar, I would say, “I’m going to hold this part for you,” and that’s as much as I would do for that probably. If it was about the baby clothes, I would probably help a little more, but I would always be gauging how to do the minimum, and so my child could do the maximum. Maybe help them pull the hole for the button apart a little bit so that they could be the one to push it through.

There are a lot of things that we can do to make it easier, but this really only works if we never take up an agenda to get it done, that we’re always one step behind our child in this. So, if our child stops and now their attention has gone to something else, we’re not saying, “Okay, let’s finish this.” A lot of times that happens and it’s reflective of us as adults feeling like we need to get it done and that our child wants that, too. But actually, our child just wanted to fiddle around with it and there will be another day where they can do it themselves.

These are all subtleties. They’re little judgment calls. But mostly, if we trust that frustration is something a lot of children go to, especially children who are more intense in their emotions … This boy sounds like he’s one of those children that is a little more tightly wound. It’s all good, it’s all healthy, and it’s the best way for children to feel confident, when they know that they could feel like everything’s falling apart, then it changes on its own. They feel better. They express the feelings and they feel better, and then they’re able to start again.

I hope that helps.

Also, you might want to check out some of my other podcasts on my website. If you prefer to read, my books are also available in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com. Also, I have an audio series Sessions. These are individual recordings of my private consultations with parents discussing their personal issues. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com, that’s sessions, plural, audio.com and you can order these episodes individually or get them all, which is about three hours of audio for just under $20. Sessionsaudio.com.

And thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

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