Trusting My Anxious, Sensitive, or Frustrated Child
“It’s like my child has zero frustration tolerance!” I hear this so often from frustration, confused parents who are all trying their best. I’ve been there. Even as an expert in child development I’ve had thoughts like this—and recently!
Being a parent can be wonderful, frustrating, and even terrifying at times--many of us imagine what obstacles our little one will come up against as they grow--we fast forward to middle school, high school, their first job, and we desperately want to impart all of our knowledge of the world to them so they can have a do their best.
We try to teach them how to avoid frustration--a 4-year-old spends 10 minutes trying to line up the blocks just right, and when it doesn’t work out he knocks them all over and bursts into tears. Our urge is to prevent the tears by teaching--
“Hey, do it this way,” we might say. Or “it doesn’t have to be perfect! Stop worrying about it!” These statements make sense and appeal to logic. But little ones, children with sensitivities, anxieties, or individual differences, may not have as easy access to logic as a grownup.
A child’s brain is not the same as a grown-up brain, so the lessons we think we are teaching often get misinterpreted. Here’s an example:
Just yesterday my little one got a new container of bubbles. He was super excited to use them and dipped the wand, set the container on the ground, took a deep breath and blew. He then turned to look at me for approval and his foot knocked over the bubbles. The instinct here as a parent was to think A teachable moment! I don’t want my child to make this mistake again, so let me tell him how to avoid this in the future. I said, “looks like you spilled those! If you didn’t put them on the ground, they wouldn’t have spilled” But this little one burst into tears and ran away! I just wanted to help! But then I realized that to my perceptive, tiny child, the underlying message was interpreted as “you did it wrong.” and this only added to the disappointment the child was feeling.
It’s so hard for us to pause, and just be in the moment of disappointment with our child, because we are fixers!
She falls, and we want to say “it’s okay!” She drops her ice cream, and we respond “don’t worry I’ll get you another one!” or “there’s no need to cry! You should be more careful”
But research shows that resonating with our child’s big feelings is actually calming, and can increase a child’s frustration tolerance! Pushing our teaching instinct off to the side for a minute and dropping to one knee to say “oh how disappointing! You’re so sad right now!” and give a big hug actually can make your teaching moment sink in much deeper.
Not only does it increase frustration tolerance, but after resonating, (once you’ve sat there with little one and grieved those bubbles or spilled ice cream cone), your child will usually be ready to hear some problem-solving or engage in a teachable moment.
Your teachable moment has become more than words-- brains change and grow through emotional, relational experiences, so by going through this process of connecting before teaching, you’ve taught your child “your feelings matter, it’s okay to be sad, and I can handle your sadness. Also, I’m a grownup so I can help you figure out how to solve this problem yourself.”
So what steps can you take when you see an emotional storm of frustration brewing? Here is a quick breakdown:
1 Calm your inner child
Frustration tolerance increases with self-acceptance. Pause and reflect: “I am a fixer--I want to help my child. But before I try to fix or change my child how can I increase my self-acceptance and calm my feelings?”
Even though they may not be able to put it into words, children can sense when you’re anxious or upset. So, if you get anxious watching your child struggle to build that perfect lego castle (when you know exactly how to prevent it from falling over and avoiding a meltdown), check yourself. Wonder with compassion, about why this situation is difficult for you. Take a breath, do what it takes to calm yourself.
There is no one your child watches more closely to learn how to be, how to relate, and what the rules of this world are. She will notice when you take that deep breath, when you calm yourself. This communicates trust that she can feel frustrated and still be okay. And by watching you, she will slowly learn calm herself when she is feeling uncomfortable, to accept failure, and to accept herself.
2 Connect before you coach
Many grown-ups love connect through chats over a cup of coffee, essay-length text messages or Facebook comments. But children (and especially highly sensitive children) respond first to nonverbals--they are Sherlock Holmes when it comes to picking up on clues from your facial expressions and body language.
When your child falls and skins their knee, they look to you first, to see how you feel about it. Show with your body that you’re concerned, but in control. Take a breath, give a hug. Use some observation language such as “You fell! I’m checking to see if you’re okay!” Then, when your child is calm, you can let your inner coach or teacher come out. “Looks like you fell hard when you were carrying all those toys! I wonder what happened? How can you keep yourself safe from falling next time?”
Many parents see themselves as the coach, the cheerleader, or the teacher. But parents are supporters and nurturers first. And if you can nurture yourself by tuning into your own feelings when your little one is upset, chances are you and your child will end up feeling better and developing some shared frustration tolerance.