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Positive Frustration

Positive Parenting by Dr. Karen Reivich

Helping Your Child to Learn and Grow from Setback and Failure


This morning my 3-year-old daughter was trying to tie her shoe. She'd pick up the laces, push them together, pull at them, twist them—no matter what she did, she couldn't make a pretty bow. "I want it to look pretty but it won't. My shoes won't tie. My shoes won't tie." Shayna felt frustrated, and it didn't feel good to her. And to be honest, it didn't feel good to me either! At the first sign of trouble, my impulse was to take over. Calm her, kiss her and tie her shoes for her. It's hard to watch a child be frustrated and not do something.


Even though frustration doesn't feel good, and even though it's hard to see our children struggle, frustration and failure are necessary components of mastery. Mastery is the experience of overcoming obstacles to reach a goal. It's using one's skills to negotiate a situation, overcome a hurdle, solve a problem. Mastery is the foundation of self-efficacy; the "I can do it" attitude that is critical for a child's self-confidence and resilience.


We feel frustrated when we are blocked from achieving a goal. What blocks us can be aspects of the situation (I felt frustrated yesterday when my car got a flat, causing me to be late to a meeting) or things about ourselves (I also felt frustrated recently when I declined an opportunity because I was overly worried about how well I would do). Because no one likes to feel frustrated, we often start to avoid situations that might bring on a sense of frustration. And as parents, we sometimes go out of our way to make sure our children don't get frustrated. It's understandable that we react this way, but the problem is that frustration, as well as failure and setback, are important experiences. We learn about ourselves, we develop skills through experiences that include frustration and failure.


A challenge for parents is how to promote what I call "Positive Frustration". The goal of Positive Frustration is to convey to our children that frustration and failure are components of success and pride. Some successes are easy, reached with little effort or struggle. Many, however, require setback and failure along the way which means they require persistence even when we feel frustrated with ourselves or the situation. Think about these questions: What do you say/do when your child is becoming frustrated by a task? What messages do you send?


Here are some of the common things parents say when they see their child become frustrated:


  • "It's nothing to get upset about."
  • "Maybe that's too hard for you. Why don't you try this one instead."
  • "Here, let me do it."
  • "If you can't play with it without getting upset, then maybe you should do something else."


Now read the statements again and notice the message it unintentionally sends to your child:


  • "It's nothing to get upset about." (Message: You shouldn't feel frustrated when something is hard. Frustration is bad.)
  • "Maybe that's too hard for you. Why don't you try this one instead." (Message: If something is hard, give up and find something easy to do.)
  • "Here, let me do it." (Message: You can't succeed on your own.)
  • "If you can't play with it without getting upset, then maybe you should do something else." (Message: At the first sign of frustration, quit and move on.)


I want to underscore that when we say these things it's usually because we don't like seeing our children frustrated. Their frustration makes us feel uncomfortable, helpless — and to get rid of these feelings we jump in and rescue them. So, an important way to help develop your child's comfort with frustration is to first develop your comfort with seeing your child frustrated. You can do this by paying attention to what you say to yourself when you see your child frustrated and then exploring the accuracy of those beliefs. For example, if you say to yourself, "She's going to be too upset. I'll never get her calmed down," ask yourself "Has she ever not calmed down before? It might take a while but she will eventually calm down. Frustration never lasts forever."


You can build Positive Frustration by thinking about these critical questions:


1. Is this the right amount of frustration?
If it's too much, the child feels overwhelmed and becomes helpless. If it's the right amount, the child learns how to manage it and develop skills. At age 3, tying one's shoes is probably too challenging a task. It requires motor skills that many 3-year-olds don't yet have. So helping my daughter makes sense. I can do it by putting my hands on her hands and guiding her through the process of making a bow. This shows her that I believe we can do it as a team-which is better than stepping in a tying them for her.


2. Is this the right domain for my child?
It's important to play to your child's strengths. If your child has strong fine motor skills, feeling frustrated while putting together a puzzle can be a positive experience. If, instead, your child's large motor skills are more advanced, create challenges that require using the larger muscles of his body, like creating a challenging obstacle course. And what your child enjoys matters too. Frustration during an activity that she enjoys will build her ability to persist more than frustration that comes during an activity that isn't pleasurable. So, if your child loves playing the drums and feels frustrated when he can't bang out a new song perfectly, let your child work his way through it.


3. Is this developmentally appropriate frustration?
Younger kids try to imitate older kids, but they don't always have the skills and abilities to do the same games or activities successfully, often resulting in too much frustration. You can transform these experiences and build Positive Frustration by modifying the games/toys so that younger kids can play in ways that stretch their skills but are not too far above their current level. For example, when my oldest boys were 4 and their brother was 2, I played two versions of Candy Land. I played Candy Land the normal way with my 4-year-olds and played Candy Land "light" with my 2-year-old. The 4-year-olds followed the rules, the 2-year-old was able to choose how many spaces he could move after naming the color on the card. (BTW, egg-timers are an amazing tool. I'd set it for 5 minutes and Jacob and Aaron would have to wait the 5 minutes while Jonathan played the "light" version and then we'd go back to the regular rules.)


Multi-purpose toys like blocks and toy figures are great choices because it is easy to use them in a variety of ways that can be tweaked depending on the age of your child. You can challenge your 4-year-old to build a tower that is at least six blocks high and challenge your 6-year-old to build one that is as tall as she is.


How to Intervene with Frustration in a Positive Way


Sometimes we do need to intervene and help our children when they are feeling frustrated. When you do this, you can make the frustration a learning experience by helping your child to develop his emotional awareness and learn strategies for keeping his frustration at reasonable levels. You are also helping him to figure out what strategies he can use to persist on his quest despite the frustration.


Start by asking your child to share with you how he feels when he's frustrated and let your child know that frustration is normal and that everyone feels it sometimes. You can share stories of times you felt frustrated and tell them that frustration is a sign that you are using your skills and challenging yourself — these are good things!


Next, help your child learn how to keep frustration from getting so intense that she is unable to keep focused on the task or challenge. You can use breathing exercises like taking 5 slow deep breaths to help calm down. Or you can do a "shake off the grumpies" dance so your child lets off some of the icky energy that comes with frustration and can refocus. You can also suggest taking a 2 minute break, but don't forget to go back. Breaks are helpful and are a valuable coping strategy, but if you don't return to the task you are instead reinforcing giving up.


Finally, help your child to figure out a different strategy to use to meet the goal of the situation. Often frustration comes when we are continuing to use the same strategy despite the fact that it's not working. If your child is trying to do a puzzle and keeps forcing the piece into the spot without out turning it, ask your child "can you think of a way to turn that piece so that it might fit better?" Focusing on strategies helps your child to build self-confidence and increases the chances that your child will overcome the obstacle and reach her goal.