Raising Kids Who Persist Through Struggles

We all want our kids to proceed through life with confidence as they develop physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because we care so much, it can be difficult for us to watch them struggle when faced with a challenge or a new skill. It’s especially tough to see them becoming so frustrated that they give up or refuse to even try in the first place, even when we’ve done all we can to encourage them.

In this episode, Janet shares a helpful reframe and actionable guidelines for fostering our kids’ healthy persistence, and then responds to some specific situations parents recently shared with her: a child getting too frustrated when attempting anything challenging; a 3-year-old who refuses to draw and insists her parent do it for her; and a 5-year-old who falls apart if he loses a game.

Transcript of “Raising Kids Who Persist Through Struggles”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I am going to talk about something I believe most of us, if not all of us, want for our children, and that is the ability to be patient, stay on task, complete things that they’ve started, not give up, persist even when something’s challenging. That they have that confidence, that they have that stamina to keep going. I guess you would call it grit. How do we help our children develop that?

As I share about this topic, I’m going to be responding to some specific questions that I received. They’re short, one-sentence questions that came via an Instagram reach-out that I did where I asked for questions. Several were around this topic, so I thought I would talk about it and answer these specifically, and also answer questions that I’ve received for years and had myself as a parent about all kinds of situations where our kids get too frustrated. They want to give up, they seem to fail at something or lose at something and they can’t handle it. How can we give our children the tools that they need to reach their potential and flourish in a world that’s not always easy and our goals aren’t always easy to achieve? Sometimes our kids can even appear to be early perfectionists. Everything has to be right or they can’t do it, and they fly off the handle when they’re making a mistake or something’s not working for them.

First I’m going to share these individual questions and then I’ll talk about some of the steps to keep in mind, responses that we can give our children that will encourage them to persist.

Here are the questions: “How can I help my three-year-old develop frustration tolerance and to not give up immediately?” Another one: “I have a three-year-old who always asks me to draw for her. I sense it’s because she’s afraid of being wrong. How do I deal with that kind of perfectionism so early on?” Here’s another one: “We can’t play games because of the massive upset it causes our five-year-old, who wants to win all of the time.” And then another one, very close to that: “Should you let your five-year-old win if they cry when they don’t win?” And then finally: “What are some tips to build children’s confidence after a tough experience?”

The most important overall goal to work towards for us is to stop fearing frustration. Frustration is part of the process, I think we can all relate to that. As is sometimes getting so overwhelmed that we just want to give up, and we maybe do give up at that point. And that’s okay, because if we’re ready to keep working on that skill, we will. We’ll come back to it.

One of the major ways that we get in the way of our child developing persistence as parents, and maybe unwittingly cause them to feel this need to control every outcome or to be perfect, is that it’s so hard for us to tolerate our child getting emotional, especially getting frustrated about things that maybe we know they can do or believe they can do if they keep trying. It’s so hard to witness that, and the younger a child is, the harder it can be. It’s so challenging for us that we can project when a child isn’t even complaining or expressing anything uncomfortable. We can project that they are maybe not going to get it and we want to help them and we want to make sure that they’re not going to get frustrated, that it’s going to work out for them. So this is what we’re up against. But again, frustration is what builds confidence and what helps children to know they can persist and want to persist, in their way and time. Ideally, they get to express it all. They get to yell, they get to stomp their feet, they get to give up. This is normalized by us for them, we see this as a healthy part of a process.

One of the really fascinating things about doing a podcast—I don’t know if other people feel this way, other podcasters—but I’ve noticed that whatever topic I’m talking about in the podcast, some version of it will happen to me in real life. It’s really odd how that always seems to happen. And I’m not going to give examples, because most of them are embarrassing and too personal and all of that. But in this case, I reached out for questions on Instagram, and then someone that’s helping me collect the questions organized them for me into topic categories and sent me this list. And it was a big list. I’m grateful for that, I’m not complaining about that at all! But I made the mistake of looking at it at the end of a long day of work, and I had what I told her later was an “inner meltdown.” I got so overwhelmed looking at them, it felt like, I can’t do any of this. This will be impossible. I can’t make these into short answers. Most of these I’ve covered extensively in other resources I’ve offered in my articles and my podcasts, that part doesn’t really matter. I just felt like, Alright, I don’t even want to do this.

But then the next day, after a decent night’s rest, I looked at it again. I remembered some of the things that I’d read, and I sort of digested them and had ideas about them and kind of started to formulate, Oh, I could answer this and that. I saw a lot of things that I could answer. It was like I was in a whole different frame of mind. I think for me—well I know for me, because this has happened in lots of things I’m doing, it happens with writing, it happens with podcasting sometimes. My husband, who edits for me, knows that I sort of lose my temper in the middle sometimes. I can’t do this! I get overwhelmed very, very easily. Then I come back, I come back to the writing and suddenly I can find my way through. This happens with everything. Maybe not everybody has this process, but I do. Maybe that’s the young child part of me still, but it’s there.

And I’ve come to realize—maybe I don’t always realize it in the moment, like the other evening when I looked at this list—but with writing and things like that, I realized, Okay, this is how it feels right now. It’s not going to feel like this forever. This is part of it. To persist, it’s necessary for me to first not want to persist, and to be able to feel like that and have that feeling be okay. To come up against those walls, to get overwhelmed and need to put it aside. This is the gift we can give our children. And they can probably get it much better than I did, it’s taken me a long time, I think. And I have had perfectionist tendencies in the past over certain things that I really care about, that are important to me.

So that’s the nature of the beast: Not fearing frustration, in ourselves or in our child. If I only had time to say one thing about helping kids learn persistence, that would be it. Normalize giving up, normalize frustration and all the blow-ups that come with that.

Another thing to remember that will maybe help us when we want to come in and rescue and fix it and do it for our child. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t have those impulses. Even if we feel like we’ve come to terms with the idea that frustration is okay on an objective level, we’re probably still going to have those urges to rescue, fix, do it for them. But here’s the thing: When children are building skills and they get frustrated, it’s like with all of us. It’s not that what they’re frustrated about is that the skill gets done, and therefore, if we do it for them, that feels better. They’re frustrated because they want to be the one to do the skill. They want to be able to do it themselves. That’s why they’re working on it. So it doesn’t help them if we come in and do it for them. In fact, that creates more of a sense for our child that they can’t. It gives them the message that they need us to do it, that we don’t believe they could do it themselves. And when powerful people in their lives like us don’t believe something or we feel something, they’re going to feel that too. It’s just, for better and worse, the way this parenting thing works.

Know those two things: First, that we don’t have to fear frustration, it’s healthy. We don’t have to make it stop or tell children to calm down or that they should feel better or do something to make it better. That’s not our job. And second, that children want to be able to do it themselves if they’re working at something.

Next point: Be careful about messaging. We tend to teach our kids, beginning in infancy, that they should focus on the goal, that they shouldn’t just be engaged in the process itself, that they need to win or they need to finish. We do this so unconsciously, it’s like we’re passing down our own adult beliefs that become ingrained in us. But it doesn’t help our children at this stage. Actually, it doesn’t really help us at any stage, but it will happen to your child eventually. But we can postpone this as long as possible by being mindful about what we’re projecting, what we’re thinking. When we see our child working on something, are we thinking, Oh gosh, I hope they get there. I hope they get it.? And maybe we’re saying, “You can do it. You can do it.” Or, “Yay, you did it!” and we’re making a big to-do about it. Or, “You won! You won the game!”, showing our child how excited and pleased we are. When we display that, we’re affirming and reaffirming to our child that, This is what I want you to do. I want you to be able to finish. I want you to be able to win. That creates pressure, right? And pressure creates even more frustration. The pressure we put on ourselves, the pressure we feel coming from someone else. It’s pressure and it’s this expectation in our child that they should or need to gain this validation from us, this excitement. If they don’t win, then they lose that. They lose not just the game, but something much more important, which is my parent’s excitement and enthusiasm and pride in me.

Even when our baby is reaching for that toy, let’s say they’re doing floor play and they’re reaching for an object that we’ve placed around in their play area. This is the power of observation actually too, and why it’s such an incredible practice for us to consider. Observation helps us to not project, Oh my gosh, he almost has it. He’s almost touching it. Oooh, what if he doesn’t get it and he might get upset? Oh, he’s touched it and oh no, it rolled a little bit. It was a ball, let’s say. It rolled and now he’s going to be so upset. I guess it’s okay to think those things, although it’s better if we are actually noticing, Wow, he’s reaching his arm towards it. Look how he’s stretching his fingers towards it. He’s not stressed at all here. And now it rolled away and he just watched and took interest in that. Maybe he made a little sound and we say, “Yeah, that rolled when you touched it, it moved.”

If we’re very conscious—and we’re not going to be able to be like this all the time—we can avoid giving children those messages that then create a sense of, Ooh, now I’m reaching for it and I have to get it because my parent usually handed it to me or they got wound up if I didn’t get it. There was tension in the air that children can feel. So whatever I was doing there wasn’t valid unless I completed it, unless I got the ball in my hand or whatever my parent wanted me to do. It’s those subtle messages. Again, they’re very hard not to project, not to give our children unintentionally, but it’s an interesting thing to look at in ourselves, how often we do this, and to try to do it less. Because children do tend to have this much healthier process-orientation until we influence them otherwise.

Another point: Make sure it’s your child who wants to do this, and let go when your child lets go. Oftentimes when our child wants to give up or they just lose interest in that and now they’re interested in something else, we can remain invested in them finishing. Because we’re finishers, as adults, we tend to think in terms of getting it and finishing it and winning it. So this is something also to try to let go of and really trust. Trust is the key to all of this, and the key to enabling our child’s learning and enabling them to build their sense of self-confidence. It’s trust about their frustration, all the stages they might have to go through, the emotions they have to go through. Those are unique to them, there’s nothing to fear. Trust that what they’re doing right now is enough and trust that our child knows what they need to work on better than we do. They’re the ones that are these genius learners, as people like Alison Gopnik that study babies tell us. They’re the learning masters, especially when it comes to themselves and their own inner-directedness, their own motivation. That’s the precious thing that we want to preserve here, right? Because that is what leads to persistence, while being goal-oriented can lead to perfectionism.

Now here are three steps that we can take to help kids in those moments of frustration. Here’s some ways to help ourselves to be in trust mode, in positive-messaging mode, and to not get in the way of our child’s natural ability to persist. If you see babies sometimes, they’re very tenacious, if we allow them to be, as they’re doing their motor skills, they’re rolling. You’ll see incredible effort when a baby isn’t tired and when they’ve got that emotional space and physical space to be able to try things. This is something children are born with, they’re very impressive. We just have to kind of protect it.

Okay, here are the three steps.

First, if they ask us for help, or maybe even if they don’t but we see that they’re struggling, we give the first step, which is emotional support. That doesn’t mean that we say a lot of words. “Oh, it’s okay, you can do this.” I would say less, especially if it might be interruptive to your child. Mostly I would just acknowledge, and not every second. We want to be in acknowledge-mode, just reflecting on what they’re saying and what they’re showing us. But we say, “Yes, I’d love to help,” and then we go closer. We don’t have our phones or other distractions because when we’re distracted, children don’t feel supported. So we’re there, we’re saying we’d love to help, but we’re not jumping in. We’re perceiving help in a way that actually really helps our child, which is starting small and just giving them that support first. I’m here watching you. I’m here with you. I trust you. I’ll always be there to help when you want me to help.

Second step: Coming from that same place of trusting that frustration is safe and healthy, which is the best way to provide emotional support, maybe we give some verbal ideas if our child is still struggling. And if they’re doing something physical like climbing or trying to get down from standing, something infants are often working on, then we’re spotting for safety and we’re maybe reminding our child of that: “I’ll keep you safe if you want to try this.” But not in a pressing tone, like we really want them to try it. Just very open, very trusting, I’m there for you.

Another way that we can help verbally is to break it down for our child with genuine questions. If our child says, “I can’t build a tower, you do it.” “That can be hard to do sometimes. Which block do you want to start with, do you think?” But actually when I just said that, I kind of rushed it. So not even rushing that. Pausing in between all of these steps, with Magda Gerber’s magic word: wait. Remembering that children are on a slower speed than we are. So we can pause between each of these steps and just acknowledge whatever they’re showing us or telling us, “Yeah, it’s really tough to do that. That could be tricky.” And then maybe slipping in, “What if you tried it this way? Do you think that would help?” Or, “Maybe just start here. Which part could you do?”

After we’ve gone through steps one and two, leaving space, welcoming the frustration, not fearing it, then the last step is if they’re still in it, they haven’t given up, they want to be still trying this task and we see it and they’re getting upset maybe, we offer physical assistance. But think small, the smallest thing possible. So if they’re opening a jar or, I’m talking about a play jar, not one they need to get in to get something to eat, then maybe we loosen it for them a tiny bit with our hand. Still letting them get the motion of it, make the effort. That’s how they learn how to do it themselves, not by us doing it for them.

Or maybe they’ve climbed and they’re trying to get down. Maybe we would help our child by helping them engage the next step below them by moving one foot onto it while telling them what we’re doing. “I’m going to move this foot so you can feel this step under you.” Because oftentimes with climbing and physical activities like that, children get frightened. So it’s not just frustration, they get a little nervous. Of course we want to help with that. But allowing children to do as much of this themselves as possible is what keeps them safer, because they’re not magically being taken down off of a climbing structure by these magical people, us. They’re feeling, Oh, this is what my foot needs to do next to be able to get down.

It’s amazing how little we need to do for children to be able to do things and feel that pride in themselves that they did it. With a puzzle, that might be just helping kids organize the pieces into colors. So we’re not doing it for them, but we’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to put these colors together, and I’ll put these together, these seem part of the same picture.” That’s a great way to help an older child who’s doing puzzles or even a three-year-old or two-year-old that’s working on puzzles.

Then with an older child, if it’s a homework assignment or a science project or a writing assignment, maybe we brainstorm some ideas with them. I did that a lot. My kids would tell me how terrible everything was that I brought up and they’d get really mad and frustrated and then they would figure it out themselves later. Not in my timing necessarily, but in theirs. Sometimes hearing all the things you don’t want it to be helps you figure out what you do want it to be, that’s true as well. Somehow that always worked, but they never liked any of my ideas.

This could also be holding that button side of the shirt really taut so that your child can more easily move that buttonhole over it, or holding that area around the zipper taut for them so that they can zip it more easily. It’s hard to do a zipper, you’ve got to use two hands a lot of the time, and we can be one of those hands. Or maybe even, this is a little more helpful, but holding their hand to help them apply more pressure when they’re trying to push together a snap. So we’re giving them that backup. Or holding a block steady so that they can try to balance another block on top of it. Those are ways to physically help that still allow our child to own the experience and learn the skill. We don’t want to take that away from them.

Now I’d like to touch on these short questions and just fill in with some details:

“How can I help my three-year-old develop frustration tolerance and to not give up immediately?”

That’s what I’ve been discussing here. They develop frustration tolerance by learning that they can tolerate frustration. And they learn that they can tolerate frustration by us tolerating their frustration, almost to the point of welcoming it, knowing it’s a safe part of the process. And “to not give up immediately”? That’s really got to be up to them. I would trust that, and know that maybe that’s our own fear coming in. Oh no, they’re giving up too fast. If they feel pressure from us, they will give up faster. If we help too much, they will give up faster. So those are ways that we can encourage them to not give up immediately. But that’s really got to be up to them, how long they can persist. And every time we trust them, it helps them to feel more confident and therefore persist longer in things. That’s also relative to their own level of self-regulation at that point. Like me at the end of a long day in the evening looking at something that overwhelmed me, I was primed to be overwhelmed and want to give up. More primed than I was when I was rested and it was earlier in the day and I had time to digest it. So again, trusting the process.

Second question:

“I have a three-year-old who always asks me to draw for her. I sense it’s because she’s afraid of being wrong. How to deal with that kind of perfectionism so early on?”

Sometimes we unwittingly create this, that when our child says draw for me, we draw. If you want to do that, I would just do a scribble, just a line or something that you think your child could draw for you. But I wouldn’t draw something that’s more advanced because for some children, that becomes this unachievable goal for them, they’re not going to be able to do that at their age.

So if you’re doing this and now this has become the pattern, that it seems like she doesn’t want to do it because she’s seen us do it, I would back off and follow the steps that I mentioned. First I would set it up that this isn’t my skill, it’s hers, for when she wants to do it. So she says, “Draw for me, draw me a picture.” “I’m actually not going to draw now, but if you want to draw, I would love to watch you or hang out with you.” And she says, “No, you do it. I can’t.” “One day you’re going to want to try drawing and then you will. But I think I’ve drawn a lot for you and I’m not going to do that anymore.”

We can say those things, have those boundaries with lots and lots of love if we get out of that fear place and know, Oh, okay, I might’ve created something here. I wouldn’t worry that this is perfectionism. I believe this is just that she’s become accustomed to a more finished product that is advanced for her, so she’s gauging herself on that. And that would intimidate anyone, right? If it was beyond what they could do. So I would just gently say no or say, “I’ll draw alongside you.”

Or maybe she could hold your hand while you’re drawing. Say, “Okay I’ll draw, you hold my hand and tell me where you want the crayon to go.” Or the marker to go, or whatever it is. And hopefully it’s not on the wall! That’s a way that you could give more physical help, step three. But maybe do the first two steps first, which is just saying, “Okay, I’m here if you want to draw. I would love to be with you and hang with you for support.” And then the second one: “Why don’t you just put your crayon down and see where it wants to go?” That would be number two, a verbal direction. And then three, maybe holding it with her. But I would not do more than that, and just trust that someday she’ll come back to this when she’s ready and when enough time has gone by that she doesn’t feel that performance pressure anymore.

Here’s two that are about games:

“We can’t play games because of the massive upset it causes our five-year-old, who wants to win all of the time.”

So maybe there’s some messages the child got there. And if they’re not getting them from us, they’re going to get it from other kids and other places, so don’t worry if your child got this from you. But winning is important to him. So I would just be careful from here on out about how excited you’re getting or how happy you are for him when he wins, or how sorry you feel when she loses. But if she expresses feelings, welcome those feelings. “I know it’s hard.” Welcome that frustration, the sad feelings, whatever it is, about losing. This is how a child becomes a “good loser,” by being able to be an emotional loser, somebody that cares, and us normalizing that instead of judging that. Judging children encourages more perfectionism. Welcoming children to share all their feelings, the messy ones, the ones that aren’t as pretty, that’s how children build confidence in themselves. None of their feelings are wrong. So, “Oh, that really disappointed you, you wanted that, you wanted to win. Sorry, that’s so hard.” Trusting their process. It’s a magical thing that we can do. It really works wonders, but it’s hard for us, right?

And then:

“Should you let your five-year-old win if they cry when they don’t win?”

I wouldn’t let my five-year-old win. This goes back to what I was saying about how your child wants to be the one to do it. It’s not just that your child wants to get to that win place, however they get there. It’s that they want to be able to do that. So letting them win, children almost always know, because they’re very intuitive and clever. And that’s a bummer, right? When somebody lets us win, it makes us feel worse about ourselves. Oh gosh, they’ve got to kind of let me win. It’s unnecessary.

But I know it’s hard when your child cries or your child gets frustrated, and that’s what this podcast is about. That’s what children need to do. The more we let them cry, the less they cry about things like that. Loving them all the way through, not trying to tell them that they should be different or that they shouldn’t feel the way that they feel. We can’t help the way we feel. So bring it on. Welcome it. You’ll be amazed at the miracles that happen when you do that. That’s how children become resilient and persist, instead of getting stuck in that rigid perfectionist place. The rigid perfectionist is holding onto feelings, controlling. The child with healthy persistence trusts themselves, is comfortable in their skin.

And here’s the last one:

“Tips to build children’s confidence after a tough experience?”

So this is kind of vague, but it’s really the same thing. Next time they’re in that experience, you acknowledge and welcome all the feelings. Intervene in steps, as minimally as possible, to show them support so that they learn that they can survive a similar tough experience. That’s the only way that children can gain true confidence. We can’t give it to them. We can’t talk them into it, unfortunately. We can’t do a strategy to make it happen. We have to trust the process, their process, and all their feelings around it.

I really hope some of that helps. And I actually do a demonstration of the three steps in a very short video that’s part of my master course. People have told me that they really like those video examples that I give. Also, there’s a lot more about all the feelings children have and normalizing them in my other episodes and in my books, No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care. This is one of my favorite topics because it’s been life-changing for me.

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

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