Tag Archives: Frustration

How To Teach Children Coping Skills

Life’s journey is a turbulent one, with major and minor vibrations that bolt us upright, force us to grab on tight, and steer steadily. In order to ensure that our precious children are capable of weathering life’s storms, we must give them the skills to navigate all situations; thus, our job is to teach our children coping skills.

Of course, some people are natural copers. With emotions under control, priorities organized, and solutions galore, they masterfully weave their way through life’s challenges with dexterity and grace. Many people, however, are not born copers. Still, by analyzing and breaking down the must-have “coper qualities,” we can train our children to be more resilient and capable.


In this article, we focus on giving children expressive language skills. This is the very first step in teaching children how to cope, because it gives children the ability to recognize that they cannot manage and verbalize their difficulties.

Expressive language delays tend to crop up in real life in many different ways.

Children may not realize that they are frustrated. Did you ever encounter a grumpy child who explodes when asked about his school day? Later you find his lunch left in his briefcase and realize that hunger was the problem –though he couldn’t tell you. Did you ever spend an afternoon with a moody pre-schooler, only to realize right before bedtime that the child is burning up with fever? Did you ever have your teenager slam her bedroom door in response to an innocent question? Your child may not be in touch with the core reason for his discomfort.

These children may have emotional vocabulary delays, so they cannot simply pinpoint and verbalize their discomfort. While most people think in emotional terminology, these children do not and simple mood translation is foreign for them. Your four-year-old comes home from school and rips her brother’s arts and crafts. She would like to say, “Beware! I am mad!” but does not know how to say it. Your six-year-old explodes, “I hate the new baby!” She does not have enough words to say, “I am feeling neglected and deprived.”

They may not be able to put their finger on the problem, so they cannot express why they are upset – and more importantly, cannot problem solve. Your five-year-old would like to tell you that another boy called him names recess time, that his teacher yelled at him, and that his snack got lost. But instead, he just says, “Ma, I’m never going back to school. Just because… It’s the worst school in the universe…” Your ten-year-old insists that she is dumb. She does not have enough words to express how her substitute embarrassed her last week, so she is just telling you that she is dumb. Your teenager is irritable, because she cannot express her frustration over her friendships at school.

Sometimes, these children may misunderstand surrounding situations and distort facts. Most people categorize their thoughts, storing previous information in designated “files” and figuring out which “folder” to open to add new information to. However, children with language delays may confuse “folders” and misinterpret information, causing unnecessary alarm and frustration. This causes them to react in an extreme way and freezes problem solving skills. Your seven-year-old hears a storm is coming and he panics, because he associates storms with hurricanes…

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Comparable to a lost person who cannot be found by a rescue team until he figures out his location, these children cannot be taught to cope until they can accurately identify and express their problem. In a catchphrase, we want to give them a language GPS.

We start by teaching them an emotional vocabulary, so that they can categorize their feelings and then share them with you. On the most elementary level, this vocabulary has three key words; happy, sad, and frustrated. Of course, your child knows the meaning of these simple words. Still, you want him to link personal experiences with these labels. A great technique is to talk to your child at bedtime about his day’s experiences. In this calm time, ask your child, “What happened today that made you glad? What made you feel sad? What frustrated you?” If your child cannot think of examples, coach him. In addition, share these phrases with your child’s teacher, so that you all speak the same language. As your child matures, his vocabulary will grow to include sophisticated terminology, such as “confused,” “bored,” “excited,” “nervous,” or “disappointed.”

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You will find it much easier and more pleasant to extend yourself to your child once he packages his feelings so clearly. Still, your child needs to learn how to expand this one word and explain why he is feeling misunderstood, worried, or anxious. Once again, teach him phrases, such as, “I don’t know what to do,” to express confusion, “I’m scared, because,” to explain fear, “I can’t talk about that now,” to clarify overwhelming feelings, “I need a break,” to express emotional overload, and “I don’t know how to do that,” for frustration. When your child is in a problematic situation, remind him of his new vocabulary, and help him grasp for the right words to express his predicament.

Mom: Pat, how was your day at school?


Mom: It sounds like you can’t talk about that right now.


Mom: Okay, maybe you’ll tell me about it later.

Along with building your child’s emotional vocabulary, teach him how to be more expressive by asking guided questions, such as, “It looks like you had a difficult time. Is there anything specific that bothered you?” “Can you figure out when this feeling started?” As you cue him on, active listen and show him that you are interested in his problems and are on his team.

Remember that children who have a difficult time explaining themselves will not become emotionally expressive overnight. Still, these skills are fairly basic and can be mastered over time.

In general, when talking with your child, realize that your child has the potential to become stuck by frustration at any point in the process. So, even if you were having a calm problem-solving conversation until now, if you sense red flags and read that your child is sending SOS signals – something is brewing, but he can’t get the words out – help him! And if he says he needs a break, believe him. Your child is saying that he cannot muster the control to discuss this in an appropriate way. So, instead of being offended, take his cue at face value. Avoid the touchy topic for the time being and come back to it at a later date.

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An interesting point to note is that teaching children how to express their emotions helps them speak more respectfully. All too often, the child whose comments are out of line and disrespectful is not seeking to undermine your authority, but rather to express his frustration in the only way he knows. When you empower your child with emotion-words, he does not have to yell… He can simply say, “I am disappointed, because…” When you coach your child to rephrase his words in a more appropriate way instead of jumping the gun at him, you avoid the meltdown shut-down stage and teach him far more.

Your child is engrossed in playing with Legos. You call him for supper. He grunts, “Not coming.” You have two choices of reactions.

You can yell and punish, declare an all-out disrespectful war, and deal with the inevitable meltdown.

Or: You can realize that your child needs time to change gears. Maybe he is inflexible. Maybe he would like to express his frustration, but needs emotional language coaching. So, you can react by opening a language bridge with a sentence, such as, “You sound frustrated that you were told to stop playing, especially in the middle of building a bridge. However, you have to speak in a more respectful way. Say something like, ‘Mommy, can I play a little longer?’”

Ultimately, your goal is to teach him a working emotional vocabulary.

(While this scenario should not be an everyday occurrence for the typical child, since he should comply or respectfully request a few more minutes, for the inflexible, language-delayed, or problem-solving impaired child, this is a useful tool that can help.)

When you boost your child’s language skills, you give him the first skill necessary for coping; you teach him how to recognize a problem and call for help.


Teaching Your Inflexible Child Flexibility

imagesWhat are your three main goals when interacting with your inflexible child? To get your child (A) to obey, (B) to learn, and (C) to succeed.

Some people mistakenly think that (A) maintaining obedience and adult authority is the primary goal. However, once we realize that the inflexible child misbehaves not out of bad will, but rather poor skill, we understand that enforcing adult authority is not the primary way to reach the child.

Rather, our primary goal is (B) to teach our child the skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance. This goes to the root of the problem and eventually avoids recurring situations. (Studies show that without this specialized training, these negative patterns usually continue throughout life.)

In order to achieve this goal, we need to aim for (C) setting the stage for the child’s success by creating a user-friendly environment. Accepting and adapting to the child’s limitations reduces his frustration levels and conserves his energy for the more important issues.

Still, all three goals are important objectives which must be mastered and implemented at different times, for different situations.

Try grouping all your child’s behaviors into three baskets. Basket A holds all the non-negotiable behaviors that are worth the meltdown price. When your child displays these behaviors, you aim for Goal (A): maintaining adult authority. Basket B is for behaviors that are important, but not important enough that they call for a tantrum. In these situations, you turn to Goal (B): teaching your child flexibility and frustration tolerance. Basket C is for behaviors that are not even worth mentioning anymore. These call for Goal (C): accepting your child’s limitations, so he can succeed.

Now, let’s take a closer look inside each basket.

Basket A: Basket A situations do not teach your child how to think during frustration, but rather reinforce your parental authority. Safety is an example of a Basket A case. What else is in Basket A? Something that passes the “Basket A Litmus Test.”

1. The issue is “worth” the tantrum

2. Your child is capable of following through on a fairly consistent basis

3. You are willing and able to enforce it.

As soon as you say “No,” “You must not,” “This is non-negotiable,” your child knows that you’re in Basket A.

Of course, you try to create a user-friendly environment (Basket C) and remove many stumbling blocks, so that Basket A situations don’t crop up too often. You also limit Basket A to behaviors that truly pass the litmus test, rather than how much you wish the behavior would qualify. You want to limit the amount of Basket A cases, because reducing meltdowns is a very high priority in parenting. This preserves your relationship and saves your clout for the most important issues at hand.

Limiting your absolute no’s is not shortchanging your parental power, but exchanging it for a more productive power.

Basket B: Basket B is the most important basket, because its practical lessons are so far-reaching and life-altering. In Basket B, you reach out to the child standing out the crossroads, just as his brain is about to lock and imprison him into meltdown mode. At this twilight moment, just before his logic becomes paralyzed, you grab onto him and help him think logically. You teach him to stay calm, despite the conflict, and think logically, despite his raging emotions.

How? By inviting him to brainstorm together with you. Your child is lacking frustration tolerance and flexibility skills. Basket B’s open respectful dialogue teaches him an appropriate way to express frustration, while problem-solving for a mutually-beneficial solution trains him to become more flexible.

Understandably, your child, who has until now exploded to every slight irregularity will not switch modes and become a great negotiator. However, when you model positive problem-solving and clearly outline acceptable modes of communication (speak in a reasonable tone of voice, be respectful…,) you teach him how to express himself in a healthier way. You may want to practice a trial run with your child during calmer moments when your child is more coherent. Also, during initial problem-solving sessions, you might need to jumpstart him with several suggestions until he learns how to view a situation in a multi-dimensional way.

If you think that discussion and negotiation compromise your parental authority, think again. This is where your child learns about give-and-take, expressing frustration in a respectful way, taking another’s perspective, viewing situations multi-dimensionally and working cooperatively to find mutually-satisfactory solutions.

How do you teach your child? By modeling the good behaviors. You may want to practice with your child at calmer moments and initially jumpstart your child by providing suggestions.

How does your child know you’re in Basket B? Firstly, you empathize. “I know you are frustrated about this.” When you accept your child’s feelings, your child perceives you as an advocate, rather than an adversary. Then, you invite him to problem-solve with you by saying something like, “Let’s work this out together.”  You may need to clarify things by summarizing the disagreement, so you are all on the same page. “John, you want to play Clics, which is a great idea, and your sister wants to play outside, also a great idea. Let’s think how we can work this out.” At times, when appropriate, you can even invite siblings to the brainstorming sessions – provided that they can contribute in a respectful manner.

Basket B is hard work. And it’s not necessarily guaranteed success at first try. Still, each problem-solving session is one more lesson in frustration-tolerance and flexibility, and hopefully, one step closer to a healthier lifelong attitude.

Basket C: Basket C is the fullest basket – and it’s stuffed with behaviors that you are going to ignore, at least for now. There are things that you are not even going to mention, such as picky eating habits or sloppy bedrooms. And there are situations you will avoid at all costs, such as overcrowded stores and late nights-out. This is because Basket C accepts your child for who he is right now, so that he can experience success despite his limitations.

Is Basket C about defeat? Depends. If you decided that a behavior is not worth the sweat and never mentioned anything about it, then you have willfully ignored it; that’s control. If, however, your child tantrumed so long and hard over a Basket A behavior that you caved in, then you’ve lost a battle.

So, think long and hard before making your classifications. After all, before the action starts, you pull the strings. But once you set the ball rolling, “No! That is not allowed,” “That must be frustrating. How can we figure out a way to work it out?” or silence, you have done yours and must hope that your child is capable of living up to your expectations.

The good part of the Basket approach is that now, you are the primary decision-maker over whether or not a tantrum will ensue. You no longer fear the possibility of meltdowns. You calmly navigate through each situation, confident that you will know how to respond in any situation. This assured calmness transfers to your child and enforces your authority and your child’s peace of mind.

To summarize, with the Basket approach, you stand in for the rational part of your child’s brain just as the thoughts are about to blur, and you turn the dial however you see fit. You help the child walk over the crossroads, giving him the skills he has yet to master. You teach him to think logically while frustrated, identify the frustration’s trigger, and explore various options and their potential outcomes. You train him to see the “big picture,” to delay gratification and to become more flexible.

Will you always have to do this? Hopefully not. With enough practice, you aim to hand the reigns over to your child one day.  But for today, you aim for greater skill, rather than only greater submission.

Basket-Weavers, Beware!

  • Watch your wording carefully, so that your child knows which basket you’re in. Some parents mistakenly use Basket A terminology when they would like to be in Baskets B or C, or vice versa. Then, your child is not on the same playing field as you. You wonder why he’s throwing a fit, but fail to realize that you told him that you will not back down on this one.
  • Don’t under do Basket B by overdoing Basket C and ignoring too many behaviors. Basket B is your main lesson plan book! You want plenty of practice examples to improve your child’s skills.
  • Do not use Basket B as a last resort. If you want to give your child brainstorming power, start with it right away – when it’s your decision to make and your child has not yet entered tantrum brain lock stage.  When brainstorming is an afterthought, your child feels that he just earned a concession over here.
  • Make sure you really are open to new suggestions. Model flexibility and compromise.
  • Sometimes, you also may do Basket B on general situations that are not running smoothly, such as dinner table behavior or bedtime routines, that you would like to brainstorm. Broach these scenarios at a calm time and problem-solve for the future.

SIDEBAR: When a child is lacking the necessary skills to meet a situation’s cognitive demands, he cannot respond adaptively. This causes challenging episodes. To avoid these situations, empower your child with skills.

Tactics For Tantrum Time – Causes & Prevention Techniques

In my previous post on Tantrums, (https://educatewithtoys.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/tactics-for-tantrum-time/) I wrote how to classify tantrums into three categories. The toddler’s tantrum is a normal, passing phase in the child’s development. The manipulative tantrum is a flashing light, indicating that the home’s discipline needs tweaking. The frustration-triggered tantrum is a reaction to an emotional overload, caused by a lack-of skill or need.

In this post, I will zoom in on the Frustration-Triggered Tantrum, explore its causes and learn prevention techniques.

When tantrums occur frequently, we cannot be passive reactors to this recurring problem. We have to be proactive problem solvers and get to the root of it.

Think logically! As unpleasant as the tantrum is for the parent, it is so much more unpleasant for the child. If so, a tantrum has to be “worthwhile” for the child. It must fill a function. And that function deserves to be reckoned with, since it is playing such a major role in the child’s behavior.

Consequently, if you want to eliminate the explosion, you must first pinpoint the function it serves. Why it is happening is far more important than what is happening. Then, you can diagnose and treat the cause, rather than dealing with the symptoms.) As an aside, if you squelch the tantrum without solving the underlying issue, the problem will crop up in some other form…)

To get to the root of your child’s problem, you have to know your ABC’s. A is for Antecedents, the triggers preceding the behavior. B is for Behavior, the behavior itself. C is for the Consequences following the behavior. Simply said, analyze the before, during and after of the tantrum.

Antecedent – take a step back. Recall the tantrum’s trigger. Try to analyze why this touched your child’s sore spot. Common antecedent triggers include:

  • Demands which exceed capability, often because of lack of skill (a challenging school project.)
  • Threats to self-image, which cause shame or embarrassment, losing a game, getting teased, or being outdone by a younger sibling.
  • Biological triggers – hunger, fatigue or illness.
  • Sensory overload-too much noise, too large of a crowd or even too many bright lights.
  • Lack of structure; without clear instruction and structure, children can become confused.
  • Social struggles, which cause the child to feel like an outcast.
  • Being made to wait.
  • Unmet wishes for attention, others refuse to play with him, or jealousy.
  • Anxiety

Behavior – describe the behavior in detail. Use concrete terms.

Consequences – follow the tantrum trail and examine the aftershocks.

Consider whether the behavior resulted in:

  • Avoiding a situation
  • Getting attention
  • Getting some desired object
  • Self-pleasure or soothing through repetitive behaviors; these calm the child, but often upset others.
  • Venting of frustration, especially when the child’s behavior has no clear benefit, such as when the child destroys his own half-completed project in frustration.


Sometimes, recurring tantrums are not caused by underlying triggers, but rather as a matter of habit. The child may simply be used to getting his way through yelling; he does not know a better way to express himself. Consequences reveal if the meltdown is fueled by manipulation or frustration. Usually, the manipulative tantrum allows the child to “get his way” or avoid the undesirable situation. For example, did the whining child bargain his way out of doing his duties? Did the attention-seeking “tantrummer” steal the show with his shenanigans and get Mom’s undivided attention at the wrong time? Did the sulking teenager cause Mom to cave in and buy the latest________? And even if the consequence led to punishment, did the child learn from his mistakes?

Once you have diagnosed both the cause and symptoms, you need a preventive plan. You already know what your child needs; now you need to figure out what your child needs you to do to help him fill those needs.

The first thing you want to do is modify the triggers. You want to make it easy for your child not to explode. You want to time situations right and avoid setting off an overly exhausted, hungry or sick child. You want to make appropriate demands, sometimes even adjusting expectations and accepting limitations. Can your child’s teacher allow him to complete 5 of the 25 math homework problems? Can you ask your child to clean up the playroom for ten minutes, instead of until it is entirely organized? You want to reduce sensory stimulant triggers, such as too much noise, light, touch, etc. You might even want to give visual supports and provide graphic instruction, guiding your child through potentially challenging scenarios.

Next, you want to teach the skills to overcome the trigger. Skills can be learned – when taught correctly. Academic challenges, social difficulties and even emotional regulation abilities are almost always surmountable. Is it a general concept, such as problem solving, perspective taking or venting in an acceptable manner? Or is it a specific skill? Do you know how to teach the skill? Does your child need professional intervention? Indeed, your child can learn how to express himself in a more constructive way if taught how to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.

Finally, you want to implement a reward or loss system, encouraging your child to make the extra effort and overcome his challenge. Only use a loss system if the triggering situation has been modified to a manageable-sized challenge, the child learned the skills to deal with the situation in a better way, and was reminded to engage in proper behavior but still chose the negative behavior.

In addition, you might consider biological and physical strategies, such as dietary changes, exercise or even medication therapy.

The following scenario depicts a mother solving a typical challenge by using ABC’s and implementing a preventive plan.

When Steve’s mom was called down to school for a meeting, she know that Steve was in for it. She had already spoken to the teacher several times on the phone regarding Steve’s frequent altercations during recess. She knew the teacher had already penalized him with lost recess, and she had also tried implementing several consequences of her own. Nothing seemed to be working. Now that she had to come down to school, she knew this was serious business.

She already filled in the C’s – lost recess, different created consequences and lots of criticism. She wanted more information about the behavior and antecedents. At the meeting, she began asking the teacher for more specifics of unacceptable recess time behavior. The teacher said he had hit, kicked and pushed other children during recess. She asked for a description of the most recent flare-up, and the teacher said that yesterday he had pushed a boy.

Then, she began zooming in on the antecedents. She asked, “What happened before Steve pushed?” The teacher had no idea. She tried questioning classmates. They answered, “Nothing; he just pushed him.” She even asked Steve, but Steve denied pushing, although everyone else saw him do just that.

With no concrete trigger data, she decided to do some real sleuthing and come down to the schoolyard for some observation. She watched how Steve approached two boys playing ball and said, “Can I play?” The boys answered, “No, we just started.” Steve squinted his eyes and lightly shoved one of the boys.

She approached Steve and asked why he did that. He muttered, “Because they hate me and won’t let me play.” This spoke volumes about Steve’s distorted perception of his classmates’ messages, and his ensuing misbehavior. He surmised that peers who did not allow him to play dislike him. Really, all they were trying to say was that he has to wait to play with the winner.

As she continued watching him to see whether her hunch was accurate, she noticed time and again that whenever Steve was told that he cannot join an already stated game, he would push, punch or hit. She also saw that whenever he disagreed when told he was out during a game, the disagreement led to a physical fighting match.

Sometimes, these flare-ups landed Steve in trouble; other times, they went unnoticed. Never did his outburst get his peers to take his side. In fact, they seemed to be increasingly wary of him and tried to steer clear. He never really seemed to be getting any real payoff. Still, these two perceptions of social rejection and social injustice crept under his skin and got the better of him. She knew that she did not need to penalize him more since the consequences he had received were not working. She would need to brainstorm for a preventive plan. Steve’s mother wanted him to learn how to overcome the triggers and respond in a more positive way. Specifically, she wanted him to have friends to play with, and understand that “waiting for a turn” was not a personal rejection. She also wanted him to learn how to accept being out even when he thought he should be in. First, she tried to modify the triggers. She wanted him to have a regular playmate during recess. So she asked the teacher to encourage structured play and ensure that Steve was invited to join. She also gave him games and balls to bring to recess, so that he would be initiating the game, rather than depending on joining others’ ongoing activities.

Next, she aimed to give him skills to deal with the triggers. She sat Steve down and explained to him that these rejections were not personal, but rather rules of fair play. She showed him how boys who sometimes did not allow him to play initially later invited him into another round of the game. She also discussed how he could find another partner while waiting for the game he really wanted.

Finally, she explained that fighting about questionable outs caused him to lose playing time, and Steve agreed that he preferred to use recess time productively rather than waste it arguing. She also reminded him that he would be a more popular playmate if he would argue less often.

She summarized both of these skills on a cue card to reinforce the skills. She asked the teacher to review this card with him before recess. She also told the teacher about the particulars of the discussion and asked him to remind Steve of the various highlights when Steve looked like he was heading toward a meltdown.

As far as implementing a reward or loss system, she decided to keep the school’s consequence system in place and added a reward system of her own, promising Steve a trip to the park if he would control himself for one week. One month later, the teacher called Steve’s mother with good news. Steve had overcome another hurdle in his path to growing up.

Remember: If a child has been prepared for a challenge and is taught coping skills for that particular situation, then we can try to stand firm and push his resistance. If children do not have the skills to cope with a challenging task, then we should avoid the power struggle.

Toddler Behavior: What’s Up With That?

Have you ever looked at your toddler with amazement, confusion or frustration, wondering why on earth they are doing what they are doing? I know I have.

When you find yourself asking — Why is my toddler acting like that? What is up with that behavior?   –  consider these factors:

  • Age-Appropriateness: Is your child’s behavior age appropriate? Our toddlers often act like toddlers. The problem, in a lot of cases, is that adults expect toddlers to understand a lot more or be able to handle a lot more than they can. If your toddler starts acting out, it may simply be that you are asking too much in that situation. This is a scenario we found ourselves in often when we were in public with our toddlers. Sometimes, we really were pushing the limits of how much they could handle, how much we could throw their routine off, how late they could stay out, how patient they could be, and we often found out the hard way that we had pushed a bit too much. That doesn’t mean that you can’t try to do things with your toddler that are out of the ordinary (we often did), but it means that you need to be prepared for potential meltdowns and have a plan for how to deal with them in a way that is respectful to everyone involved.
  • Not Being Listened To: Your toddler probably notices you talking, but what are you saying? Are you talking at your toddler or are you speaking with your toddler? Are you taking the time to mirror what your toddler is saying or thinking or feeling, so that they know that they are being heard? Even if you have to say “no” when they want you to say “yes”, helping them see that you do understand how they feel and have taken their perspective into consideration can make communication much smoother. (Excerpted from http://www.phdinparenting.com/)

This is a great article! I believe that with age-appropriateness we have to realize that children’s growth is a gradual process. We must know where our children are holding, in order to help them keep on climbing the ladder. After all, we can’t expect them to reach the top of a ladder if we skip pivotal rungs. Evaluate whether expectations are age-appropriate and realistic.

I would also like to point out the fact when children feel they are not being listened to. Understanding your child is like piecing together a puzzle. It involves listening to what your child is saying, thinking about his underlying message, focusing on his body language…and assembling his complete picture.

All too often, while our child is talking, his words whiz from one of our ears through the other, but we still have not heard what he is trying to express. For example, your seventh grade daughter announces, “I’m not inviting friends over anymore.” Is she trying to say that she no longer has any friends to invite? Or is she telling you that she’s embarrassed that the house is messy and disheveled. Or your ninth grade son says, “There’s nothing wrong with smoking.” Is he trying to assert his power? Be one of the “gang?” Or is he in the mood of being contrary? It’s not enough to merely hear; we must listen, perceive and understand.

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