Helping Children Overcome Frustration

Question: How do you prevent frustration on your child’s part when you home school?

One challenging thing about homeschooling is that children do not hold back their emotions from their parents as they would (usually) do with their school teachers. In the absence of peer pressure, children feel less compelled to keep their emotions in check. Thus, in a home school, children are more likely to burst into tears or go into a fit of rage over a difficult math problem. This can pose a considerable problem for us parents, one that can cause us to feel inadequate and frustrated ourselves.

Identifying the cause

When a child gets frustrated, it is good to identify the root cause. Generally, children become frustrated when things don’t go the way they expected or envisioned. For example, a task may be harder or more time-consuming than a child anticipated or a game may not be going the way he planned. Many children become frustrated when they are given unexpected assignments or chores… the fact of the matter is, so do many adults.

Knowing what is causing the frustration helps us to be more sympathetic and understanding, and this should be our starting point. I know it can be hard to be sympathetic when your child is taking a tantrum over something you consider petty. But it helps when you acknowledge the reason for a child’s frustration: I know that learning long division is frustrating. There are so many steps and it takes a long time. But you’re not the only one who feels this way. Then offer encouragement: Hang in there. I know it’s hard, but you’ll eventually get really good at it! 

When a child is frustrated, there are three things you should not do. First, don’t allow your child to give up on the difficult task (unless it really is beyond his/her ability). You may need to postpone completing the task until your child cools down, but teach your child to persevere. Second, when your child is frustrated, don’t become so frustrated yourself that you become harshly judgmental: Why the heck do you keep swinging and missing the ball?  You’re just not trying hard enough! Third, if a child is struggling with a task, don’t let preoccupations or laziness make you coldly indifferent: You’re fussing over that? It’s so easy. Go figure it out. I’m busy.

Mitigating frustration: avoid the conditions that exacerbate frustration

I have noticed that there are certain conditions that exacerbate frustration. Some of these can be helped; others are completely out for your control. The two conditions which you don’t have control over are:

  1. Age/maturity – Until the age of five, most children are so ego-centric that they are  incapable of seeing things from other people’s point of view. They also have few qualms about acting out their frustrations (a.k.a. tantrums) anytime and anywhere.
  2. Temperament – Some children are just born with more intense dispositions. Highly competitive children and detail-oriented perfectionists tend to experience more frustrations than their mellow, easy-going peers.

There’s not much you can do about your child’s age or temperament, except patiently and lovingly bear with their immaturity and personality. Bear in mind that all temperaments have pros and cons.  Highly competitive children may be easily frustrated, but they are driven to succeed and are often self-motivated. Perfectionists may be easily frustrated when they fall short of perfection, but their work is usually very well done. I’d like a perfectionist for a surgeon or an accountant, wouldn’t you?

The conditions that exacerbate frustration which you can help are as follows:

  1. Tiredness and/or insufficient sleep – Get your kids to bed early and have a regular wake up time.
  2. Hunger – Many children become hangry when their tummies rumble. Feed them healthy snacks.
  3. Discomfort or pain – Illness, allergies, or headaches can make one irritable or edgy.
  4. Underlying anger or resentment – When a child is stewing about something, other little annoyances flare up his anger/frustration. Find out what is upsetting your child and help him find a resolution. Often, just being able to unburden oneself helps soften resentment.
  5. Unrealistic or unfair parental demands – It’s always good to do a self-check: are my expectations for my children fair and reasonable? Do they take into account their temperaments, maturity,  and natural abilities?

All children experience frustration. Avoiding or preventing conditions that exacerbate frustration will mitigate the severity of frustration flare-ups.

Preventing Frustration

More importantly, there are things we can do to help prevent frustration:

  1. Stick to a Routine – Remember that the root cause of frustration is usually caused by thwarted or unmet expectations. Routines help children know what to reasonably expect each day.
  2. Try to be consistent in your parenting – Some days we may feel moody and therefore act strictly; other days we may feel light-hearted and we become more lenient. However, it’s confusing and frustrating for children when parents are inconsistent. As much as possible (I know it isn’t easy!) try not to let your mood dictate the decisions you make and the way you discipline.
  3. Communicate your expectations clearly. One of the best ways of communicating your expectations is by giving your children a checklist of all the assignments and chores they need to complete each day.  I may make changes to a checklist in the morning or the evening before, but after that, the checklist is non-negotiable. I have found that once you start negotiating the checklist with your kids, your expectations become fuzzy and your kids will get into the habit of trying to change the list. So make your checklist fair and reasonable, and then be firm about it. And resist the urge to add more work to it last minute! (The last thing your kids want to hear is: Oh? You finished your math early? Great. Now do 3 more pages.) Eventually your kids will learn and accept that  whatever you assign them on the checklist must and will get done. On their end, there are no unpleasant surprises (chores/assignments) that will cause frustration.
  4. Teach your children how to manage difficult assignments.  Don’t let your kids agonize over a difficult writing assignment or an enigmatic math problem. It’s important to teach our kids to persevere, but that doesn’t mean we need to make them struggle over a math problem for an hour as they growing increasingly agitated. Make sure your kids ask for help when they need it. If a child is stumped by a math problem and you are busy helping another child, let your student look at the solutions manual or answer key and then try the next problem without it.   If an assignment is long and difficult, show your child how to break it up into smaller bits and take breaks or do easier subjects in-between.

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Learning to Cope with Frustrations

No matter how hard you try to mitigate and prevent frustrations, your children will still have moments of exasperation. It’s part of learning. So, perhaps the best thing you can do is to nurture the virtues that will help your children to cope with frustrations. These virtues include patience, self-control, perseverance, understanding, flexibility, the ability to see the needs of others, and a good sense of humor.

As much as our children’s sports schedules cause me stress, I must admit that playing sports is an excellent way of helping children develop these virtues. A boy who strikes out in a baseball game will feel frustrated and even embarrassed, but he will need to exercise self-control in order not to have a melt down in front of his teammates. He will also need to persevere through many practices in order to improve his swing. And, playing on a team will teach him to think of the good of the team over his own success.

Each frustrating moment is an opportunity to grow in these virtues.  So try not to be appalled each time your child is frustrated; look at it as an important learning moment. A child who learns to deal with set-backs, disappointments, and frustrations will be very well prepared for the larger problems that come with adult life.

Finally, let’s remember that parents lead and teach best by example. The way you deal with your own frustrations will teach your children how to cope with theirs. This is a sobering thought, no doubt, but one that should motivate us to strive for patience and cheerfulness. The good news is that children are very forgiving.  We don’t have to be perfect examples; we just have to be loving examples. And as long as we keep on trying to master our own frustrations, our children will learn to do the same.

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