When parents hold their newborn infants, they naturally want what’s best for them. They want to protect them, nurture them, and give them all the opportunities to have a happy life. At the same time, however, children must learn to cope with frustrations and disappointments.
Luckily, there are frustrations from the very beginning of life, such as when babies want a bottle and have to wait even a few minutes while you are preparing it. Later, as toddlers, they have to wait until they can get to the bathroom or they may need to adjust to sharing you with a newborn sibling.
Learning to manage and overcome frustrations builds resilience—but it can be hard for parents to stand back and let children cope on their own. In our book, Raising Independent, Self-Confident Kids, we outline strategies for surviving tears or tantrums when you have to say “not yet” or “no,” while still being supportive and nurturing. Here are five of them.
1. Stay calm
You may be thinking, “Easier said than done.” While you may feel anxious, angry, or even embarrassed when your child is crying, it’s important that you model remaining calm yourself. It helps to remember that being a good parent doesn’t mean that your child is always happy and to remind yourself that your child’s age-appropriate frustration will eventually pass and that both of you can survive it.
For some children, seeing their parent upset can increase their anxiety over who is in control in that situation, or lead to them feeling that upsetting you is a way to get what they want. Keeping calm can prevent this dynamic from taking hold, and may help you to more clearly focus on what’s needed in the situation.
2. Be consistent
All children need to know that they can count on their parent to guide them, support them, take care of their essential needs, and love them. Even in times of conflict, knowing how you will act when they are upset can lead to security and comfort in the relationship, even if it simultaneously leads to frustration when you calmly say no.
When parents hold high and realistic standards for their children, yet provide reliable warmth and love, this can lead to many positive outcomes, including social adjustment and overall well-being for kids. Staying consistent can really help when the going gets tough.
3. If you don’t have a good reason to say no, why not say yes?
Parenting can and should be filled with special moments and joy. Therefore, giving your children what they want and seeing their appreciation and happiness can be rewarding to all of you. So, have fun and give in…at appropriate times. That will help build a close, healthy relationship.
When shouldn’t you give in? Here are some quick guidelines:
- Of course, say no if your child wants to do something that is truly dangerous (e.g., if your young and/or impulsive child wants to run into the street to retrieve a ball).
- Your child wants you to buy a toy that you really can’t afford.
- Your child starts to physically or verbally attack someone (e.g., if your child tries to hit another child over the head with a toy car in order to take the other child’s toy).
- You feel that the timing isn’t right (e.g., you have to feed an infant sibling so your child has to wait; or you need time to think about it; or you don’t want to accidentally reward the behavior he demonstrated as he demanded something).
You can also take time to discuss a compromise, which is a skill that most young kids don’t automatically learn. So, if there’s a situation where you feel that a compromise would be appropriate, set aside some time to talk about how your child can gain part of his goal and you can agree to that (rather than the larger, more unrealistic goal he seeks). For example, if your ten-year-old child wants an expensive smartphone, and you would be willing to buy a phone without Internet but with regular phone service, this may be the time to compromise rather than simply saying yes or no. Alternatively, a compromise may be that your child does chores to earn the money to pay for part of a new toy.
4. Pick the right time to talk
You may have noticed that talking to your child when they are very emotional may not be very productive. However, children often want immediate answers and to gain what they seek instantly. If you are going to give them what they want, then telling them this and explaining your reasoning right away often leads to smiles and excitement for your child. But if the request is either unrealistic or something you cannot or should not fulfill, explaining this to an enthusiastic, persistent child may only lead to conflict and increased insistence.
It may be a relief to remember that you don’t have to answer your child immediately when emotions are running high. Even if your child becomes frustrated, it may be best to wait until you are both calm rather than saying no immediately and having your irate child not even listen to your reasoning.
Try picking a time when your child is calmer, and you have had time to think about whether you want to give in, not give in ever, give in later, or compromise. Wait until you have time and have picked a place for the talk without distractions.
5. Practice good communication skills
Children often learn skills by modeling after parents! So, as you try to communicate with your child, focus on being patient, being a careful and respectful listener, and remembering to be a role model for problem solving.
- Listen to your child. Let your child know that you are interested in hearing, in a respectful and calm discussion, what she wants and why—the why being very important for you to hear. Children benefit from seeing that adults are looking at them and quietly listening as they formulate their thoughts.
- Restate your child’s request and reasoning. Often, children cry out, “But you didn’t listen to me!” For many children, listening and giving in may be viewed as synonymous. However, to reduce the chances of your child not feeling heard or you truly misunderstanding, it’s helpful to restate what she said without judging or responding to it yet.
- Logically explain your position. Children may feel that a parent is randomly saying no or yes without any logic behind it. In our experience, there have even been children who feel that they are the favorite or the least favorite in the family when a parent says no or yes when they don’t understand the true reason for the decision.
- Use “I” statements. If you are trying to explain why you are not giving in to a request, you might find that using “I” messages can be helpful. For instance, if a mom needed to deny her son’s request for a new bicycle, she might say, “I feel confused when you ask for this new bicycle, because you rarely use your current bike, which is in good shape. I want you to know that when that bike gets too small for you, I am open to talking about this again.” You may hear, “You just don’t understand!” If this happens, and your child is still calm enough to continue the discussion, you may want to respond, “I understand perfectly, but I just don’t agree with you.”
- Ask your child to restate what you said. It’s important that you understand your child’s request; but it’s also important that your child understand (even if he vehemently disagrees with) your logic and position. This is a good skill to develop—even at times when you said yes—so he learns to restate your logic and focus on it in a variety of situations.
These steps can increase communication and understanding; but many children may still end the discussion feeling frustrated, and you may still feel like you are disappointing them. At these times, remember that allowing your children to learn to cope with age-appropriate frustration is also allowing them to prepare to cope with the world that awaits them later on in life.