There we were. Me and my chimp . . . . and the ski school director. I understand why she came over. With skis strewn, sobs a wailin’, legs sprawled, and gloves littering the bottom of the bunny hill, to the uninformed eye it must have looked like a serious injury. To the trained eye, this was just a young gifted child trying to learn a new skill.
For days I’d been prepping my youngest son to hit the slopes. I knew it would be challenging. Any 5-year-old strapping long, odd boards onto his feet and heading down a hill would be challenged. And, I knew he’d get frustrated. I knew his perfectionist desire to learn things easily would be given a workout. And still, we landed at the bottom of the hill in a frustrated, I’m-giving-up heap.
Gifted kids are often not very good with frustration. They often don’t know that learning a new skill is supposed to be frustrating. They wrap their precious identities up with doing well and learning quickly and when that doesn’t happen, big massive frustration ensues.
And (she admits with head hung sheepishly while simultaneously mustering up some self-compassion), seeing the complete and utter lack of frustration tolerance might have triggered up a less than patient response from me. Ok, fine. My own frustration tolerance somehow didn’t show up on the hill that day, either. Yes, I was frustrated because my child wasn’t handling his frustration well. And I handled my frustration by snipping at my son to listen more closely (!), to take a breath (!), to get back up (!) and keep trying (!). JUST HANDLE YOUR FRUSTRATION ALREADY, FIVE-YEAR-OLD!
Yep. My approach worked as well as you can imagine.
And so, more as a reminder to myself than to anyone else, how can we help build up our child’s frustration tolerance?
Step 1 – Breathe.
Step 2 – Breathe again.
Step 3 – Remember that it’s going to be frustrating.
Step 4 – Take a break.
Step 5 – Breathe again.
Now that you’re tolerating your frustration, here’s what you do with your child.
Model Effective Frustration Tolerance. Repeat steps 1-5 as long as you need to so you are providing a calm and secure environment. We must first regulate ourselves.
Put Your Child in Frustrating Situations. Kinda impossible to learn to tolerate frustration if we never feel frustrated. Take your kids to do something new. Intentionally give them difficult work. It’s easy to want to avoid frustrating situations, but trust me. If we do, we’re only teaching our kids to avoid frustration at all cost.
Prepare Them. Let them know that they’ll be frustrated. Talk about frustration. Prepare ahead of time the steps they can take to manage it well. Normalize that frustration is an essential part of learning something new.
Teach Them to Breathe. Teach them to take those belly breaths. Their bellies should get bigger as they breathe in and smaller as they breathe out. Practice it together. Rock stuffed animals to sleep on your bellies as you lie next to each other on the floor. Take breathing breaks throughout the day.
Channel Stuart Smalley. Practice affirmative self-talk. I can do it. This is hard, but not impossible. It’s ok that this is difficult. I can keep trying.
Get Frustrated! OK – now it’s time to actually get frustrated and practice the breathing, the positive self-talk. Remember to do your own steps 1-5. Be encouraging and positive in words and tone. Remind them that they’re supposed to be frustrated. Give them specific feedback on what is going well. Validate the frustration. Share the frustration. Take a minute to look around and notice some beauty around you. Take a moment to look back at what they’ve accomplished so far.
Take a Break. We need time to reset, to re-center, and to relax. Your child probably needs this, too! Tolerating frustration takes a lot of energy. Be sure to take breaks to refill your energy tank and your child’s.
Get Back at It. Try again. Rest and return to the frustrating task.
Praise the Process. Don’t just praise the new skills being learned, but praise that your child allowed themselves to feel frustrated and managed to move through it.
Reinforce their Lovability and Worth. Gifted kids can get mixed up beliefs about their identities and feelings of conditional worth. Even in the midst of the frustration and thrown gloves, remind them that you love them. Remind them that they are valuable and amazing no matter how good they are at this new skill. Remind them that they are so much bigger and more than their abilities.
Chimp and I aren’t still stranded at the bottom of the bunny hill. The ski school director eventually left us alone after she realized her typical tricks just weren’t going to work with my intense kid. I followed steps 1-5, calmed myself down, gave him a hug and said, “This is frustrating, huh?” Chimp nod. “Do you know that I love you?” Chimp nod. “Do you know that you’re one of my favorites?” Chimp nod. “Will I stop loving you if you can’t ski?” Mischievous Chimp grin, followed by a Chimp nod. “What?!” Followed by a bazillion and one kisses and giggles. We gathered our gear. Went in for food and a break. Headed back out for more attempts. Had more frustration intolerance, but ended the day with smiles.
On the drive home, a sleepy Chimp voice asked, “Mom? When can we go skiing again? That was fun!”