When cognitive development outpaces motor development, the results are frustrating for the uncoordinated and eager. For a preschoolers in particular, the vicissitudes of development can prove difficult to overcome. They understand how to do better but can’t avoid the same rookie errors, those stuck zippers, untied shoes, and poorly rendered letters. Kids that are left alone to stew on their failings can develop poor emotional self-regulation, leading to trouble down the road. So it’s critical that parents understand the frustration and work to ameliorate it.
“Frustration is pretty typical in preschoolers, and this is largely due to the fact that their little brains work faster than their little fingers, mouths, and bodies,” says Dr. Jaelyn Farris, a psychology professor conducting developmental psychology research at Youngstown State University. Toddlers know what they want to do, Farris adds, they just don’t always understand why they can’t make their bodies do it. Put a different way, they frequently have a better understand of how the world works than how their bodies do.
Children learn a lot about the world through modeling behaviors. As kids see their peers become increasingly independent, they too want to start doing things for themselves. When they stumble, they get frustrated. There’s nothing parents can do to quickly improve their kids’ abilities, so the best course of action is to help your child work through these inevitable frustrations and develop methods for emotional self-regulation.
“Emotional and behavioral self-regulation is linked with good outcomes in the moment and for years down the road,” Farris says, “but sometimes we as parents don’t teach this because we’re busy or distracted or don’t know how.” By recognizing moments where intervention can help, parents can help kids quell that anger and show them how to manage their frustrations on their own.
“We can’t always make things work out for our kids, but we can help with the emotional and behavioral aspects of what they’re experiencing,” Farris says. Conversations with your child about their frustrations can have profound effects on how your child reacts to new problems they encounter throughout childhood. “The key is to help children identify and cope with emotions early on,” says Farris, “so they can learn how to regulate their emotions and behaviors, first with the help of parents and then eventually on their own.”
Four Ways to Help a Frustrated Child
- Model emotional coping behaviors. Explain to your child that you too get frustrated sometimes and that when you do you think about ways to make yourself feel better.
- Offer help. You’re not stunting your kid’s development if you make help available; you’re suggesting a valid strategy they can use until their body is ready to do the task alone.
- Label both positive and negative emotions. Labels allow children to recognize how they are feeling and help them self-regulate their emotions.
- Link their frustrations to the effort. Make it clear that they are mad at the difficulty of the task, not their inability to complete it.
Frustration is an inevitable part of childhood, and Farris warns of stigmatizing against negative emotions. It’s important to help kids recognize both positive and negative emotions when it comes to tackling tasks. “Say things like ‘Wow! You did it and now you are smiling and full of energy, and this means you’re feeling happy and proud of yourself,’” Farris says, or “‘Oh my, you just took your shoe off and threw it and you have an upset face, so I think you’re feeling frustrated.’”
You’d never say this stuff to adults, but you also wouldn’t need to. Helping kids recognize and label their emotions provides them with tools for dealing with similar situations in the future.
“I find it helpful to tell kids that I feel that way sometimes too, and when I feel that way I think about ways that I can help my body and brain feel better,” Farris says. “I prompt them to take a few deep breaths and try to come up with some solutions.”
Often, that solution is help from a parent anyway. And there’s nothing wrong with stepping in to help your child complete a task. If their zipper gets stuck halfway, encourage them to try again but always offer your help. This intervention isn’t promoting weakness or dependence, Farris says, rather it is giving kids a coping strategy that they can use when they need it.
Some tasks are simply beyond a child’s abilities. Farris recommends following the child’s lead. Don’t push them to try and complete tasks that they’re not ready for. If they try something challenging and get stuck, help them recognize that the frustration they feel is because the task is difficult. It’s important to link their emotion and response to the situation or the effort, and not to the child’s character.
As with many aspects of parenting, putting in the legwork early on really can make a difference in a child’s life. “It can be tedious when children are young,” Farris says, “but it has big payoffs later.”