By Dr. Judith Bin-Nun Ph.D., MFT
How many times have parents heard the “4 W’s” coming from their preschoolers? The 4 W’s: the Wail, the Whine, the Wall and the Wanna– all hallmarks of a child’s internal needs and reactions when those needs are denied.
The expression, ‘frustration tolerance’, a desired attainment for people of all ages, is the ability to wait, to think through, to set aside anxieties, desires or needs and to COPE with not having immediate gratification.
Without parents’ consistent modeling and shaping of behavior from the gate, frustration tolerance is harder for a child to learn; putting this simply, the inability to tolerate frustration and to learn alternative, socially acceptable self-soothing methods is one reason so many adults need anger management classes, fall prey to addictions (self-medicating behaviors with addictive substances or processes), demonstrate need for inappropriate ‘soothers’ and why our nerves often get the best of us.
Some simple parenting lessons to titrate small doses of frustration help your preschooler begin the process of self-soothing. Putting realistic doses of frustration into our children’s life is modeling the way the world works, but on a very small scale. When teaching children how to wait, parents are demonstrating the power of self-control.
Meltdowns, temper tantrums, ‘pitching fits’ are all ways parents describe when children go out of control when they are blocked by limit setting. Yes, many times the limit is ‘no dessert before dinner, errand runs are NOT for buying toys, geegaws, clothes, or candy etc.
Here’s a shopping tip to help you child learn about delaying gratification and learning to decrease demands: before entering the market or mall, inside your parked car, have a small envelope’ ready. Keep envelopes, small index cards or post-its in your glove compartment where you will draw the trip’s expectations pictorially — “a simple round face with the word “No” on the mouth area and a stop sign for NO BUYING; or write the numeral #1 on your index card if you permit your child to buy one item and limit the cost by placing exact money in the child’s envelope. Only you can determine how much is appropriate to spend (25 cents-$2.00 is adequate). In the parked car, the child opens the envelope and you discuss the excursion’s purpose and limits. The child agrees and pockets the envelope. If the child wishes to make a purchase, go together to the salesperson who can correlate your child’s money with available items. Teach the value of window shopping – not always buying. Parents need to model this behavior too.
Talk less to your child when a meltdown begins; more talk = parent deafness. I don’t recommend time-out discipline, “naughty rugs/chairs” and asking “why questions” as first choices – it is important for the child’s developing ego during a meltdown to have a parent keep him/her safe from these big emotions by holding the child facing outward on your lap (opposite of a hug) while stating: “I am holding you to keep you safe from the big feelings you’re having. When you feel in control and not upset, let me know saying: “I’m in control of my _______feelings and I will not ______ (specific behavior – example: hit, scream, throw toys etc.).” It is too simplistic to believe that change is immediate – there is wriggling and upset, but keep with the program, don’t over-talk, stay calm and the results will grow.
After control is regained, praise and encourage your child and resume prior positive activity. Sending a child for a time-out, sends away the feelings too and it’s critical for frustration tolerance that parents are present as the child’s auxiliary ego until the child can assume feeling management. I have known many children who stew with very negative thoughts in their time out rooms then pop out, shriek dishonestly how the time –out is over and return to the behavior that brought them there in the first place. Your goal is always narrating and understanding your child’s feelings first and helping give them the language to express what is occurring internally.
The above discussion and suggestions are a few tools to help a child to learn affective expression and internal limits as a form of self-soothing and to make gains on the road to frustration tolerance.
Dr. Bin-Nun has her doctorate in Clinical Child Psychology and has Masters’ Degrees in Education, Psychology and Marriage, Family and Child Counseling. Dr. Judy is an Educator and Artist and has her private practice in West LA and offers Experiential Art Therapy and “Food For Thought” Cooking Therapy in her Venice Studio. Delta Pet Partner AAT dogs are part of her practice.