A few years ago, I did an interesting course with the wonderful developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld. (You can check him out here. ) I learned a lot about attachment. And the importance of frustration for our children’s emotional development and well-being. The general idea is that rather than subvert or avoid frustrating situations, our children need to feel the futility of something that they cannot change. And move from feeling bad to sad; feeling the tears of futility and accepting that sometimes there are things you cannot change or hold onto. One of his colleagues Deborah Macnamara wrote a great book called Rest Play Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One) if you’d like to read more about the approach. She has a list of futilities that our children will most likely encounter; life lessons that are painful and yet necessary to experience for emotional well-being. Here are the 6 that resonated most with me:
#1 The pain of trying to hold onto good experiences like leaving the playground or the end of a holiday. I remember sobbing my heart out at the end of our annual trip to Dublin in the summer: no more bus rides, staying with the aunties, or eating Knickerbocker Glories in the Burlington Hotel!
# 2 The frustration of trying to make something work that doesn’t. My little girl experienced this one day when she was about two and a half and wanted to wear a pink jumper with an owl on it that was now too small.
#3 The fact that you can’t possess a parent or friend; sharing friends can be very hard and sharing your mama with others can generate intense emotions!
# 4 The futility of wanting to send a new sibling back to where they came from. Being a youngest child, I haven’t experienced this directly, but I can totally imagine what it might feel like when an interloper comes along!
#5 The futility of wanting to be bigger than you are– we are in the middle of this in our house right now where my little girl wants to be a grown up. She is very definite that she is a grown up and gets very annoyed if I call her a child. We were reading The Cursed Child ( a play about Harry Potter and friends many years later). At one point, Harry Potter says something along the lines that parenting is hard. Another character points of to him that growing up is the hard thing and it struck me that there’s a lot of truth in that.
#6 The pain of wanting to be wanted where you aren’t: not being invited to a birthday party, siblings or friends not wanting to play with you.
So, what can we do as parents to support our children through these painful experiences? Here’s what Deborah recommends:
#1 Provide a clear and direct “No” to the request or agenda with little explanation. Of course, tone of voice is important here and you would need to say it kindly! (Not always easy, I know!!)
#2 If you see that your child is feeling the futility (this can be subtle like a watering of the eyes, or more obvious sadness or crying), then you know that they are on the way to being able to adapt to the futility. They are being changed by what they can’t have or change.
#3 Once they’ve accepted your no and adapted, then she suggests that you can share your reasons for the “No”.
Acknowledging your child’s feelings as described in one of my favourite parenting books (How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish) will help here too. I remember when my little girl was very upset because her doll was in the washing machine and she really wanted her. I had been reading the book and somehow managed to remember about the feelings and said “You really want your dolly but she’s in the washing machine”. You could almost see the frustration drain out of her.
They also talk about giving your child what they want in fantasy which might seem counter-productive but in my experience does work. So the day my little girl was frustrated over the pink jumper being too small, I overheard her say to herself “I wish I had a huge pink jumper”. She had learned to soothe herself. And talking about what she might wish for often made her laugh when we imagined outrageous possibilities and took the intensity out of the moment.
What things does your child find frustrating? What helps you be there with them in those moments? Be sure and leave a comment below.
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