Written by: Amy Gebben, LMFT, RPT
Frustration tolerance is a presenting problem often seen by therapists, as parents seek much needed help for their children. As a play therapist, I often see this come through in the playroom when a child either doesn’t possess the skill to ask for help, or feels uncomfortable utilizing that skill. During parent and child interactions, I observe parents helping reduce their child’s frustration by offering assistance without being asked. While this is evidence of attunement and attachment, it limits the opportunity for the child to practice communicating what they need to reduce the frustration on their own.
In therapy, I prompt the child to ask for help by teaching them that they can. How they respond to the prompt depends highly on the therapeutic relationship. As that relationship grows in safety, consistency, and trust, the child becomes more efficient in asking for help without a prompt. This becomes key for communicating to others outside the primary caretaking relationship what their needs are and how to meet them. Sometimes this also happens in a form of a statement versus a request, such as “I’m thirsty”. The parent will then proceed to get the child a drink of water or juice. People outside the family of origin are not going to decode that “I’m thirsty” translates to a need to being met or at least a response question of “what would you like to drink?” This might create more frustration in social situations. Prompt children to form needs into requests and asking versus statements or telling.
Asking Vs. Telling
There is one other situation where it is important to differentiate between asking and telling. When there is a task for a child to complete and it is meant to be a task where compliance is mandatory, do not pose a question. Children will answer the question honestly, which means that if you ask the questions “should we put your coat on and leave?” they may say “no” because they want to stay or don’t want to put on their coat. A request made in the form of a statement, the first time that instruction is given will set children up for success where compliance is concerned. Statements like “we’re leaving now, come put your coat on”. Try to be mindful of tone of voice and inflection, and be as neutral and direct as possible. Making rational statements also helps children increase compliance, such as, “put your seatbelt on so we can stay safe in the car” or “keep your seatbelt on while the car is moving to stay safe”. When children ask “why”, it is not to be disrespectful, but so that they can better understand their world.