The Frustrated Child: When Imperfection Becomes a Catalyst for Behavioral Challenges

I started writing this article for a friend who was seeing her first grader act out in a way that was not in his character. She asked me if I had any tips and tricks on how to help him get through those moments when he is trying to learn how to write but cannot seem to get it completed the way he thinks it should be done. I can relate. I deal with these battles every day with my child and have had to become quite resourceful on how to diffuse the situation and stop it from becoming an even bigger issue.

If your child gets easily frustrated with herself over tying her shoes, drawing a triangle, making animals out of playdough – whatever the activity may be – I have a few tricks up my sleeve to make things a bit easier. Here are 8 kid-friendly ways to help your child go from frustrated to confident.

1. Make sure the task is age-appropriate. Children can get easily frustrated when something is too hard for them. If your son sits down to write a sentence but gets upset because it doesn’t look the way he wants it to, make it one step easier. Instead of using pencils, pens and crayons, get him one of those dry erase boards with the lines already on them. This will give him an exact place to write his words and he can simply erase any mistakes he makes along the way. When he’s ready, move him on to pencil and paper.

2. Build her confidence. Children typically want to please their parents. Don’t wait until your daughter is excelling at her homework to tell her she’s doing a good job. Make a big deal about her progress even when she’s just doodling or doing something just for fun. Start instilling in her the self-confidence that she is capable of the task at hand. Encourage her and show her by example that her drawings and writing will get better over time.

3. Make it fun. I remember writing in those small blue books in school. I’m talking about the light blue, flimsy, white-lined books that you took some sort of awful test in. Some children need visual stimulation to get their brains going. Let your child decorate his notebook with action hero stickers. Encourage him to write a few sentences about what Superman is doing in the picture. Replace random words like pencil, kite, kitten or ball with cheap stickers you can pick up at the store. I see this done in elementary-aged books all the time. A sentence might look something like this: “I went to the [put a picture of a grocery store here] with my mom today.”

4. If your child is encouraged by rewards, go ahead and have a stash of her favorite candy, chapstick or any other small item that will get her working towards her goal. Maybe it is a bigger reward that she cannot see yet. Tell her after she works on writing complete sentences for one week, she can go to the store and pick out a toy. Learning can be hard and challenging sometimes. Change it up and give your daughter something tangible to look forward to.

5. Get on their level. Something that has always worked with my children, hands-down, whether they are sad, mad, frustrated or scared is when I say, “I felt that way too when I was your age.” Or, “Yeah, I understand why you feel that way. I remember when I had to learn that in school and it was really tough for me.” This always opens the door for communication because your child will inevitably say, “You had to do this too? When you were my age?” Kids have no concept of their age and your age. Remind them that you know exactly what they are feeling because you experienced it too.

6. Take a timeout. No, I don’t mean put your child in time out. Learning should be fun, not discouraging. If your child is getting upset over things that are out of his control, take a break from the activity and do something else. Get a drink of water, have a snack, run a lap around the house, pull out the rice bin and take a mental break from the assignment. Kids get overwhelmed with information just like adults do. Sometimes they just need a break.

7. Redirect their behavior. If your child has been acting out (think yelling, being defiant, rude, bothered, unmotivated, etc.) by all means, let him know that the way he is behaving is unacceptable. Explain that everyone gets overwhelmed at times but it’s not okay to act out in a way that affects the family dynamics. This is going to happen. It just will. Kids are still learning how to control their emotions and since everyone is born with their own temperament, this will look different from child to child.

8. A mood chart. This is a tool I have used over and over again with my kids. You know those silly looking smiley face charts you see in your pediatrician’s office? The ones that say, “Rate your pain” and have a happy face with the number one all the way up to a sad face with the number ten. Yeah, make one of those. Most children do not know how to express what they are feeling. Teach them what it means to be upset, angry, frustrated, tired, mad, angry and bored. Keep this chart handy the next time your child is doing her homework and ask her to show you what she’s feeling. Once you understand why she is feeling that way, validate it and move on.

how-u-are-feeling1Hang in there. Your child will get through this phase in their life and things won’t always be a battle. The older they get, the easier it will be for them to channel their feelings in a more productive way. Revisit the writing activity with these steps and you will see immediate success.

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