- On Good Things Utah this morning – It’s back to school time and maybe your kids are feeling nervous and anxious. Experts share their five-step strategy for helping children meet life’s frustrations.
- Like all of us, kids encounter challenges and setbacks in life. And what might seem like a minor annoyance to a parent can feel like the world is burning down to a disappointed, frustrated child. “My kids are pretty young, so a lot of things feel big to them even if, as parents, they don’t seem big to us,” Lauren Quetsch, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Arkansas and mom of four, tells TODAY.com. For instance, her almost-7-year-old daughter is a “spirited and competitive person, so when she doesn’t get things on the first try, she gets really frustrated,” Quetsch says. Learning to ride her bike and getting used to opening her eyes underwater when swimming both took some practice. Kathryn Hecht, Ph.D., tells TODAY.com that her 2-year-old has “those little bumps in the road on a daily basis.” The challenges she encounters — like not being able to eat ice cream for breakfast or hearing a spooky noise in her room at night — “may seem like small fries compared to those bigger-kid struggles,” says Hecht, child clinical psychologist and a partner at Anxiety Treatment Resources in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area. But her approach is generally the same as it would be for older kids. In situations like these, Kathryn Humphreys, Ph.D., tells TODAY.com that she draws from her own research on the best way to respond to kids expressing strong emotions: comfort, attunement to and validation of emotions (CAVE).
- FIRST, VALIDATE WHAT THEY’RE FEELING.
- If you notice your child is frustrated or disappointed, the first thing to do is validate that it’s OK and understandable that they feel that way, the experts agree. When Shannon Dorsey, Ph.D., learned that her 9-year-old son had been having social difficulties with some of his classmates, like name calling and being excluded, the first thing she did was ask open-ended questions about what happened — and validate his feelings of sadness, hurt and anger. “It’s essential to hear their story, validate their emotions and truly listen to what they experienced,” Dorsey, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, tells TODAY.com. “Make sure you listen before you try to problem solve.” Plus, parents aren’t always able to solve the problem anyway, Angela Narayan, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Denver specializing in clinical child psychology, tells TODAY.com. “Adults can’t always fix things that are disappointing to kids,” she says. “What I usually try to help them understand is, sometimes, we think or expect things are going to happen and then something changes and we can’t always control that.” For instance, her 4-and-a-half-year-old son has been disappointed a few times this summer because their plans to go swimming changed due to the weather. “Having adults understand how they’re feeling and communicating to kids, ‘Hey, I see that you’re feeling sad. I see that you’re let down. I see that this is really hard. I see that this is really disappointing’ — that goes a long way even if you can’t fix it,” Narayan says.
- RECOGNIZE AND RESIST THE IMPULSE TO “FIX IT.”
- When Becky Lois, Ph.D, learned that her 8-year-old son wasn’t happy at his new summer camp, she tells TODAY.com that she rushed to call the camp and try to remedy the situation. But when that didn’t work immediately, she took a second and pulled back. “After that initial impulsivity and panic response as a parent,” she thought through the potential benefits of having her son continue with a new, somewhat uncomfortable situation, says Lois, a child and adolescent psychologist and co-director of the KiDS of NYU Foundation Integrated Behavioral Health Program at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. “We don’t want our kids to suffer or to go through things that might be difficult for them,” she says. “And at the same time, there’s a lot of benefit from kids having to stretch and figure out how to manage something that may not feel super easy for them.” Similarly, Dorsey says she “hated” that her son felt sad and frustrated in his interactions with classmates. “But humans will always need to deal with others they don’t get along with,” she explains. “Building these skills is more helpful than protecting our kids from them.” Of course, if a child is in a serious amount of distress or danger, their caregiver should intervene, the experts say. But you don’t need to immediately swoop in and “rescue kids from age-appropriate struggles,” Hecht says.
- HELP THEM SIT WITH TOUGH EMOTIONS.
- The best way to help kids sit with challenging feelings depends on how intense those feelings are and how they’re expressing them. “If they’re really frustrated, talking about anything isn’t necessarily helpful,” says Quetsch, who specializes in working with children with disruptive behavior and autism spectrum disorders. In those instances, she often tries to help kids focus on “breathing through it,” noting that they don’t necessarily have to feel better, but reminding them that it’s also not OK to yell or express their anger by hurting others. “Giving kids the opportunity to sit with negative emotions is a huge point of learning and growth for them,” Narayan says. “Everyone needs to experience negative emotions at times, like frustration or anger or disappointment.” Hecht agrees: “My goal as a parent isn’t to get rid of the feeling. I’m not necessarily trying to resolve the experience because I don’t want to treat it as an emergency,” she explains. Doing so can unintentionally send the message that “strong feelings are somehow dangerous,” Hecht says, or that the child can’t ride the wave of those emotions on their own.
- OFFER TO HELP REFRAME OR WORK THROUGH THOSE FEELINGS.
- When the child is ready, ask if they want your help in thinking through solutions and start asking some open-ended questions. “Sometimes when they’re struggling, you might ask a question like, ‘What’s really hard for you? Why is it really hard?'” Quetsch suggests. From there, she often asks her kids what they need in that moment, whether it’s some concrete problem-solving or a just hug. And, as kids get a little older, she recommends asking questions such as: What are some solutions you’ve already tried? How is that working for you? And what are some other things we could try? “Then it doesn’t feel like you’re abandoning them when things are really hard, but you’re also not fixing it for them right away,” she explains. Finally, it’s worth reflecting with your child and pointing out how much better they feel now and what helped get them there. “That gives kids the confidence to know that they have the tools to make the situation better rather than relying on an adult to just fix it for them,” Narayan explains.
- DON’T INSIST ON HELPING IF THEY DON’T WANT IT.
- “When kids get older, they want more autonomy and independence,” Lois explains. “But they may also be less open about their emotional experiences.” Rather than coming to you with a problem, they might be going to their friends. So, instead of trying to problem-solve with them, the approach in those instances is heavy on the validation and normalization side, Lois says. “Even if you have a strong desire to problem-solve or to fix it, as kids get older, they’re often really disinterested in what you, as a parent, think is the solution for their problem,” Lois says. “We have to be really cautious when kids get older about making those suggestions without the child asking for them.” Hecht takes a more straightforward approach in those circumstances. “I don’t even attempt to talk them into problem-solving,” she says. After validating their emotions, “I take a big step back and just ask outright, ‘What are you going to do? How are you going to handle that?'” This signals that you have confidence they can handle the situation on their own, Hecht says. But keep in mind that these strategies aren’t going to be successful every time, Humphreys says. “Every parent makes mistakes,” she says. “We say the wrong thing or get distracted when our child is asking for help or speak too harshly when frustrated or all of the above.” In those moments, she explains, it’s important to acknowledge your own shortcomings and apologize. And, Hecht adds, be patient. Your child may need more than one conversation before they’re ready to shift into problem-solving mode, for instance. “You’re also not necessarily going to have an instant response to (these strategies). It takes practice,” she says. “We’re building human beings here and that takes a while.” We hope you tune in for this Hot Topic and so much more this morning on GTU!
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