Q: I do not know how to help my 5-year-old when he is trying to master something new. If he doesn't get it the first time (catching a ball, writing a new letter of the alphabet, etc.), his frustration overwhelms him and he melts down or quits. I've tried many different approaches, but they all fail because he wants to be able to do the thing without anyone helping him, but he hasn't yet learned how to do the thing, so he can't do it without help. He seems a little young to understand the concept of "paradox." The latest struggle is writing one of the letters in his name. I've had to walk away because I can see that he is too frustrated to really listen to what I'm saying, but the walking away just makes things worse because then he feels abandoned in his moment of need. I've tried just being with him in his frustration, but he pleads with me for help. Help that his brain can't seem to process. So. . . help!
A: Thank you for your question; you are not alone in parenting an easily frustrated child. Many children, for reasons we don't completely understand, are born as very sensitive creatures. Many parents report that their children have been like this "from the beginning," and it can be harder for them to navigate the big feelings that come with frustration. I don't know if your son was born intense or if this is a new development. Here are some factors that create more sensitivity in a child: a sudden loss or big change in routine, a move, school and peer issues, and/or medical changes. I never want to write off his inflexibility as an issue in isolation, so be sure to look at the whole picture to make he isn't suffering in any other domains.
Also, make a list of where the frustration is showing up and show it to your pediatrician. I am not an expert in identifying gross and fine motor skill issues, but when you mentioned he had trouble with "catching the ball," and "writing the letters," I thought about dyspraxia or a similar condition. Children are immensely helped by a good occupational therapist, so it's something to keep tucked in the back of your mind.
But assuming he is like every other 5-year-old who gets easily frustrated, let's look at why so many children are inflexible and easily overwhelmed by failure. First, young children have immature brains, which means (among many things) that they have a hard time mixing their big feelings. For instance, your son wants to write his name and master that letter. He can visualize and he wants to accomplish that with all his heart. When his little hand grasps the pencil, his excitement is still looming large, but no! He cannot do it! No matter how hard he tries (which makes everything worse), his hand will not make the "B" like he sees in his mind. The frustration builds and it sounds like it builds pretty quickly for him and BANG! He explodes, melts down or quits (probably throwing the pencil for good measure). Built into this mess is the dynamic with you. He wants to do it on his own, but he cannot. He wants help from you, but then that means he still cannot do it. The paradox you mention is precisely what he can't handle, and the only factor you can control here is you.
So, from my standpoint, I want every child to be able to feel the sadness that exists underneath the frustration. I want your son to feel the anger and then get to the place where he cries about what he cannot change. This is hard parenting work because, as you mention, he is stuck in a cycle of trying to write his name and cannot (frustration), wanting your help (more frustration), not accepting your help (more frustration). You are frustrated, he gets more frustrated by your feelings, and now we have a full meltdown, and there aren't any feelings here that are helping him to grow up. We are stuck.
What can we do?
1. Plan the frustration. If he wants to write his name and you are leaving the house in 10 minutes, that is not the time to try that activity. You know that there is only frustration ahead, so you can decide to hold off. Most parents believe that the child's ability will improve with practice, but the only thing your son is practicing is anger. Instead, plan when Billy is going to practice writing his name. Say: "Billy, we are going to practice your B's on Saturday morning after breakfast. Right now, you can practice ___ (fill in the blank with something Billy can do)." Stay strict on this.
2. Practice the frustration. I know this sounds a little nutty, but script how this frustration will go. Say: "Billy, we are going to practice our B's and you are going to get very, very frustrated. We can stomp around the house; we can throw this soft ball, a bunch of things. We will take some breaks and just keep trying for five minutes. It is okay that you become frustrated; it is normal to feel angry and sad. You just really want to make that B, right?" As you practice, watch for his mounting frustration and see if you can catch it before it spills over. This won't be perfect, but remember, you are ready for this.
3. Don't be afraid to stay quiet. There is a middle place between verbally helping him nonstop and walking away in frustration. What if you practiced staying quiet, present, calm and compassionate? Yes, even in the face of his meltdown. Staying put sends a clear message of, "I am here. I can handle your anger. We are okay." I am curious: If you take yourself out of equation, will your son find his tears? Will he cry about what he cannot change? Will he begin to feel sad about what he cannot accomplish without the explosions?
4. Celebrate the wins. And I mean all of the wins. If your son quits, runs off and then returns, notice that. If your son throws a tantrum, but it ends quickly, say something about that. If he makes the top of the B and that's it, good enough! We are not cheerleading and falsely rewarding him; we are growing the good. We are finding the growth edge of your son and noticing it. This is the essence of what a parent does. We see the child's potential and we highlight the strength, not the outcome or the perfection.
5. Get ready for this to take
a while. If your son is intense, you cannot control how long it will take for him to feel his sadness. Look at this as a lifelong practice and believe that it will get better.
6. Don't be afraid to get some help. Again, check with your pediatrician, but sometimes a teen neighbor, a teacher, a babysitter, an aunt or grandfather can more kindly facilitate this learning. We parents are not angels, and we don't have an endless supply of patience. Reach out to your village and seize upon others' strengths.