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Learning to Deal with Frustration, Disappointment

Asked to share his reason for grabbing a red toy car out of his friend’s hand over and over, then crying when his friend grabbed it back, a four-year-old boy explained with a scream, “I want it!’ When I inquired about getting him an identical red car to play with, his eyes teared and he yelled, “No, I want that one.”

We expect young children to have difficulties handling frustration. But preschool children aren’t the only ones who get more than mildly disgruntled when life doesn’t go their way. Look at the times we implode when we’re stuck in traffic or curse the fates when our e-mail is down. Children learn from our reactions, and in our fast-paced society impatience over not getting what we want as quickly as we feel we need it can model a generalized feeling of entitlement.

It’s as if we grow up with the mistaken idea that hard things shouldn’t happen to us. A broken washing machine. A child falling apart. At least that’s the way we can easily think when we’re  tired or we’ve scheduled more “to-dos” than there are hours in the day.

Children who have a hard time dealing with frustration need to learn to self-soothe. And we do too. Disappointments are an essential part of learning, and we need to coach children starting at a young age to comfort themselves and problem solve when things don’t go their way. Feeling angry about our children’s feelings of frustration (or our own) just adds gasoline to the raging fire. The antonym of the word “frustration” is “support.” Support calms us and our children and creates a broader picture.

Of course, children don’t want to listen to us when they’re upset. Talk can be agitating. But physically comforting a child during a tantrum shows we understand. Often children just need us to offer them the right words. The four-year-old obsessed with his friend’s red car admitted when I asked him that he wanted the car just because his friend had it.

It helps to know that we under-stand because many people feel that way. Haven’t we all felt that way numerous times? Scientific research shows that validating children’s feeling of anger or frustration is a major destressor. We can also coach children on what to say to get back in the game, to problem solve a creative solution, and help themselves feel better.

Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.

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