Helping Our Children Grow Their Frustration Tolerance

Tips for guiding children through frustration

Helping Our Children Grow Their Frustration Tolerance

Frustrated kids can be hard to manage and hard on our sanity. I have had days where I did everything possible to reduce any frustrating experiences for my child, wincing at the first sign of an oncoming tantrum.

It turns out that if we are trying to control our children's environment so they don't get angry, we aren't teaching them how to be angry, or how to increase their frustration tolerance. We also aren't increasing our own frustration tolerance or emotion regulation skills if we become afraid of anger. We need to guide our children through the frustration, not away from it so they aren't conflict avoiders when they become adults.

The most important factor in frustration tolerance is what a person tells themselves. As parents, it is our role to influence our child's self-talk with positive statements. I love this quote, "Be careful how you speak to your children, one day it will become their inner voice." -Peggy O'Mara

When the sh*t is hitting the fan, we want our children to be able to talk themselves through it. So, the first way to grow frustration tolerance in your children is actually to notice how you respond when you are impatient, overwhelmed, upset or "annoyed." Your reaction to these situations is going to greatly influence how your children handle the same experiences. What are you telling yourself? Do you have rational or irrational beliefs? Are you rude or friendly? Do you make a sour face?

Here are some common negative statements (irrational beliefs) and the positive ones (rational beliefs) to grow in our children and ourselves:

1) - "I can't handle this."

+ "This is rough, but I can do it." You will not die or lose your mind if something breaks, you have to wait, you can't find something, or things don't turn out the way you want. Choose to be calm. Tell yourself to take a breath and try again, ask for help, or find a different way. Accept when something is really hard. Deal with the reality of the situation you are in, problem solve and focus on the options you DO have, not the ones you do not.

2) - "I should always be happy."

+ "Happiness, sadness, fear, and anger are all part of a normal life." When we learn to express all our emotions, they can be processed so we can move on. Sometimes when people are focused on being happy, all the ignoring of their anger turns them miserable in the end. If you would like to read more about this, I recommend the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Laura Markham, PhD.

3) - "I can't wait."

+ "Waiting is okay." If you are in a situation where you really can't wait, leave and plan to come back. If you don't want to wait, ask yourself what you could do to make the waiting okay. Take some time to have full, slow breaths or be thankful to have a moment of rest.

4) - "Things don't go my way. This always happens!"

+ "Things do happen. That's okay; I can handle it." People will continually experience challenges. I have learned to be thankful for my challenges because they usually end up teaching me something valuable in the end. Shift away from victim language to capable language. "Yup, tough things happen. It's a good thing I have people around me to help, or that I will figure out what to do."

5) - "I hate being frustrated. I will avoid it at all costs."

+ "How can I plan to reduce frustrating situations?" Thinking ahead to plan a route with less traffic, or making sure you have enough water and snacks for the day are examples of mitigating frustration that is within your control. When the frustration is not in your control, accept it, surrender to it, and think. Take a moment to regroup and ask yourself what you need to do to get through this situation.

6) - "I don't have time for this sh*t!!!"

+ "I need more rest and to schedule better. Am I getting enough fun?" Nuff said.

7) - "People are always annoying me."

+ "I didn't like what she did but I'm not going to let her ruin my day." We do not have control over other people, but we do have control over how we react to them. We also have control of our thoughts and can choose to stop thinking about or talking about a negative situation. Accept the real emotion you are feeling instead of "annoyed." Is it anger? Sadness? Substitute a different word for "annoyed" and just sit with how you really feel.

8) - "What a day. I need a drink!" or "This is too much. Let's go shopping."

+ "I need to find a way to get all this crap out of me." When we model avoidance of feelings, we may inadvertently lead our children down the addictions road. This article is not about coping strategies, as many entire books have been written on just this subject. Please notice if you are saying or doing these kinds of things, and seek out a book or helper so you can learn how to feel rather than avoid.

Once you have the language to instill positive self-talk in your children, use these words repeatedly. When you see your child melting down, infuse him with empathy and positive messages.

The next factor in teaching frustration tolerance is to not cave if your child might experience anger. If you need to say "no" to having a third cookie, do it calmly, with empathy, and firmness. "You are not having three cookies. Having a third cookie hurts our body. I'm okay if you are angry at me about that." Let your child be angry and stay calm. I am going to refer back to the book I mentioned above if you would like some help with managing your child's anger.

There was a time when I felt my kids were getting angry all day long. As a psychotherapist, I knew this meant I needed to have a chat with a colleague to see which of my buttons were being pushed, get some strategies, and hear her ideas. Taking time to check in with a professional is definitely worth the energy and money.


I continually provide free parenting resources on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/andrea.m.nair if you would like to join in. Feel free to ask me a question there.

Best wishes for high tolerance!


Photo: flickr creative commons azo in the flickr


Positive Discipline With Straightforward Words

How to keep language clear to help kids grow their brains.

Positive Discipline With Straightforward Words

When a parent uses neutral words that help their child form quick associations, it really helps reduce frustration and improve the parent-child relationship.

One example is how the words "no" and "careful" are often used—these actually aren't helpful words for young children because they do not give any instruction nor indication of what the child is supposed to do. Instead, the words "stop" and "fingers up" quickly tell a young child what is expected. Here is an example of what I mean: When a toddler is pulling on a curtain, "no" doesn't tell him what to do, whereas "stop" and "let go" explain that the toddler needs to take his hand off the curtain.

Similarly, the word "penalty" is a straight-forward nonjudgmental word for a parent to use to talk about a consequence for a wrong-doing. The word "bad" is a tricky one because if children hear this one too much, they might slip down the dangerous self-talk slope of, "I'm a bad person." The word "punishment" can also be used to make an association but I find the word "penalty" seems to work faster.

"Penalty" is used in sports and the reason for it and the outcome are pretty clear, which helps the brain understand it faster! When I hit someone with my stick—which hurts them—I end up in the penalty box. That sucks.

The word "penalty" works great for positive discipline because it is neutral and reduces negative associations. For example, "The penalty for hitting your sister is that your screen-time gets cut in half today." This word is used best when the kids already know what the various penalties are in your house—that they can see it coming.

To make these penalties clear AND teach children how to manage their big feelings—which is called "affect management"—create a family angry plan (I talked about this recently on my facebook page). Ask the children what penalties are to be dished out if they are not able to calm themselves first and end up hurting someone or something.

The brain gets the message: When I hurt someone, they feel sad, that is not okay, and I get a consequence. By using neutral language in discipline, we are hoping to avoid the situation where the brain might make a negative association like, I am such a bad person and can't do anything right.

If a child continues to do the same thing, despite the consequence, offer more support to learn how to calm himself before hurting another RATHER than increasing the penalty. A child in this situation might be lacking skills, experiencing emotional overload, or feeling a relationship breakdown and will not learn strategies, release the emotions, or get closer to you by being yelled at or having something taken away.

I'd like to take a second to mention SuperNanny's "naughty chair." I am frustrated with her use of this term because SuperNanny is not a psychotherapist, a parenting researcher, nor a parent. This suggestion might "work," but the negative associations created may not help the child as they get older.

The word "naughty" is on the same slope as "bad." The problem with these words is that children don't usually have the understanding like Oh, mom said 'naughty' but I'm sure she was just referring to my behaviour and not me. I doubt there are too many children out there who could make THAT association.

Again, I'll refer you back to angry plan, which is my way of communicating as a family what everyone is going to do when they feel like blowing up and what happens if they can't stop themselves.

The goal of positive discipline is for the child to form an association between a cause and an effect, and hopefully not to create negative self-talk in the process. Remember, children aren't "bad" or "naughty"; they just sometimes do things you don't want them to.

I will continue this discussion on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/andrea.m.nair.

-Photo: flickr cc indiekid73


Thriving With A Toddler

Tips to shift from surviving to enjoying time with your young ones.

Thriving With A Toddler

When my little guys were both toddlers, I really struggled to get out of survival mode. I wasn't satisfied with clawing through each day so I invested time to find a way to enjoy my time in toddlerville.

While researching techniques and theory, I came across several posts like this, “Two-year-old for sale: priced to sell.” Raising a toddler can really bring out the worst in us and grow feelings of desperation and exhaustion. *We all know how incredible, funny, and endearing toddlers are so let's assume that while I talk about the challenging parts, I'm not forgetting these qualities.

First, we need to acknowledge that the toddler years can sometimes:

 Require a massive amount of energy

 Be mind numbing

 Turn you into a broken record

 Bring out the most intense anger a person has ever felt

 Be a strain on your marriage

In order to thrive with a toddler, we need to understand how we might be inadvertently creating tension or growing some negative self talk in the child's mind which can elevate anger, exhaustion, and disconnect for both parent and child. This usually happens when we are trying to manage our toddlers while they are breaking things, hitting, fighting us when we want to get them out the door, not wanting to eat, refusing to use the toilet when they obviously need to, crawling out of their beds, or having a complete meltdown. Many parents say, "My toddler just won't listen!"

That's right, toddlers don't listen. Toddlers don't really have the ability to listen, they form learning associations like, "When I throw my food, it gets taken away and I get hungry. That sucks; I'll try not to do that again." It might take some time for the association to actually turn into action.

Our parenting challenge is how we respond to toddlers when they aren't doing what we'd like them to do. In this respect, one of the most frequent questions I receive is, "How do you discipline a toddler?"

My answer to that is, "You don't. You don't discipline a toddler: you teach, guide, nurture, and attune to them." Some people use the term "positive discipline," but I prefer to replace "discipline" with "guidance" for this age.

There is a serious consequence to using harsh discipline with toddlers—as sobbing mothers of "rebellious" teenagers will attest to. A toddler does not have the rationality to understand why they are being shouted at, spanked, timed out, or belittled for following their natural instinct to explore and push the limits.

When well-intentioned parents use physical punishment with toddlers, these paired associations might happen within the child's mind: "My mommy is scary", "Don't trust daddy", "Being vulnerable isn't safe."These internal messages are called negative core beliefs which can affect behaviour throughout our entire life if they go undetected. How do you think a teenager would behave when she gets into something over her head, if she truly feels that "My mommy is scary?"

Equally important are the paired associations that DON'T happen such as: "Being angry is okay but I can't be mean" and "Having big feelings is normal." Learning how to manage those big emotions is the next step.

But many of you might be saying, "I was disciplined harshly (spanked) as a child and I turned out okay." Well, spanking (and shouting, belittling, shaming) works as a discipline method like stealing works for financial freedom. Both achieve a goal but at a serious negative cost, which I mention in this article called, "The Cost Of Spanking Our Children."

The reason physical punishment isn't the best choice with toddlers is that when toddlers are disciplined this way; they usually go into a defensive mode. They might stop spilling their drink if they get shouted at each time, but they also might develop negative self talk that they are incompetent ("ARG!!! Look what you did!! You spilled your milk again—why can't you stop doing that?")

Anxiety is created when a link is formed between a thought and a negative outcome. Anxiety is born from a thought such as, "I'm too afraid to try something on my own because I'll just mess it up."

Using cups with lids and a straw until they are old enough to be aware of their surroundings and their elbows takes one battle off the field and can reduce their anxiety. Then you can take time to train the child how to use a cup when they are able. "Are you ready to try using a cup? Let's see if you can remember to see where your cup is and to not hit it with anything. Why don't we put it in front of your plate?"

The child will LEARN how to have space awareness, not be AFRAID they can't do anything right.

Along with learning how to not scare your toddler, and instead be patient and teach them, the two most important skills for parents during this time are:

1. Your ability to reduce your exhaustion.

2. Your ability to calm yourself when your child is freaking out. (I have written other posts on this topic if you would like help in that department.)

When you are rested and calm, you are more able to be rational—which is really the biggest thing you can do to help yourself during the toddler years.

If you are looking for some specific tips to manage your toddler, here is a list of tricks that worked in our family and in the families of my clients:

Do not pose instructions as a question. "Do you want to put your mitts on?" will often get a reply of "NO!" Use an "it's time to....." statement. "It's time to put your mitts on." If "NO!" still happens you can say, "Oh, I didn't ask you, I was just letting you know what time it is."

Do not use the words "please" or "okay?" when giving instructions. Children learn manners by watching how you interact with them and other adults, not by you asking them to "please do this... or that" So when you are giving an instruction, resist the urge to throw "please" or "okay" at the end, which will reduce your authority.

Everything can be made into a race! “Let’s see if you can get into your carseat before I count to ten!"

Be creative and/or gross with everyday tasks. For example, “There’s a fire in the potty! Who can put it out?!” *Sound effects and silly faces get you extra bonus points.

No surprises… if you can help it. Announcements like, “Okay, it’s time to go,” may result in an hour of yelling. Give three warnings: “Just so you know, we’ll be leaving in fifteen minutes…” Repeat the warning at ten and five, and on the last warning, introduce something like, “because we are leaving in five minutes, which is soon, what special toy do you want to play with before we go.”

Find a way to give directions in a way that doesn’t feel coercive. Instead of "Wash your hands." Try "Everyone with clean hands can sit down to eat."

Invest time in them. Your child needs your undivided attention more than anything else. Undistracted, on-the-floor time (cell phone/computer/TV off) every day will help form a secure attachment.

Routine, routine, routine. A predictable order of things at a consistent time reduces yelling. Ask her to help you create a morning or bed-time routine and then make a chart using simple drawings to post on the fridge.

Have low expectations of behaviour when your child is compromised. For example, it is not reasonable to expect a young child to stop himself from pushing his little brother when he is tired, hungry, hot, or has had to share his favourite toy all afternoon.

Get used to being a broken record. It might take several, maybe hundreds of repeats of "Hitting is not okay. Let's hit the chair instead when we feel full of anger." These directions will eventually sink in.

Toddler-proof the entire house. The more thoroughly you toddler-proof your house, the less you will have to convince them to not climb on, pull down, or get into things that will hurt them. More things off the battle field!

NEVER, ever, say HURRY UP! This will make your child slam into slow motion. There is a deep instinct in all of us called counterwill. If a child feels he has lost control, he will be compelled to do the opposite. Try hard to not be in a rush yourself.

Don’t ask your child to stop yelling. He is yelling because he is likely angry or scared. Give him a safe place to get it all out. Yelling into pillows, sweaters, or his elbow allows him to resolve his feelings.

Learn to support your child through a tantrum. Children need to learn that calming themselves down is their responsibility. I encourage parents to sit calmly nearby but not to try to talk to their child during this time. Make sure the child and surroundings are safe, or get the heck out of whatever public place you are in. During a time when the child is calm, establish a family "anger plan" which tells them exactly what you will do and what you expect them to do when they are flipping out. (This is a huge topic with entire books having been written about it. I regularly post book reviews and articles about this, so if you would like more information, I recommend you go onto my Facebook page www.facebook.com/andrea.m.nair.)

Try not to take it personally. Even if you feel more equipped to handle fits of yelling, they still might be difficult to go through. Try saying this to yourself during these times, “This child is not trying to hurt me. This too shall pass.” I also found it helpful to do slow, long breathing.

*I am available to conduct parenting workshops on this topic. If you would like to book me to come provide an interactive session on guiding toddlers, please do email me at [email protected].

I do provide free parenting resources on Facebook (www.facebook.com/andrea.m.nair) and Twitter (@andreanair).

Photo: flickr cc Nienke and Ties