Why kids need frustration

At a recent trip to a toy store I witnessed a G-force-strength tantrum over a Woody doll. The mother was attempting, and failing, to wrestle her whirlwind offspring into his buggy while around them other parents stared aghast at the poor woman’s attempts to pacify him. “Perhaps you can have a Woody Doll for your birthday darling.” She says as she tries to strap him in. He screams louder. “Shall we ask Grandma for one?” She tries over the din. That doesn’t work either so she quickly grabs the toy from the shelf and marches to the till.

Whether as the parent or a casual observer, we’ve all witnessed the appalling behaviour of some young children. The loud whisperings of “Spoilt” or “needs a smacked bottom” from passers-by can just be heard over the ear-splitting screams.

In this age of fluffy, overindulgent parenting I see or hear of too many situations where the children are seemingly in charge of the whole family. In France such children are called L’enfant roi – ‘the child king’, because his wants are always way above the needs of the parent who is under the illusion that letting their child do as he pleases and giving him everything he wants builds his self-esteem. He’ll only eat certain foods, presented in a certain way, on a certain plate.

There are various reasons why some parents allow this behaviour. Guilt caused by mothers who work full time can play a large part. They don’t want the precious little time they have with their children to be spoiled by fights or disciplining so they let the darlings get away with murder. Some may just wish to avoid the conflict involved in discipline (although others might say this is making a rod for their backs). All he need do is kick off and his wishes are granted.

According to psychologists there is an increasing number of children and adolescents who attend counselling to deal with feelings of anger or intense frustration. Their parents have given them everything they ever wanted and have satisfied their every need. They’ve protected their child from any kind of misfortune and anxiety, and so when he reaches adolescence he expects the world to indulge him in much the same way as his parents have done.

Studies have shown that kids with high but unstable self-esteem, the type fostered by those who rule the family, tend to be more angry and prone to aggression than usual. They might appear confident but in fact they are highly sensitive to negative feedback. According to Dr Ilona Boniwell children need to be given the opportunity to develop frustration tolerance, which they can only do if they experience failure or disappointment in childhood.

For those children who have been pandered throughout their childhoods any day-to-day frustrations will become too much for them to tolerate. However, when we build up their resilience by ensuring they are given plenty of opportunities for disappointment we are in effect building up their immunity against the negative events in later life. This is how authentic self-esteem develops. The kind that has grown out of their feelings of competence when allowed to, with our support, tackle something challenging, be it an event or a negative emotion.

Put plainly, children need to face disappointments; these are a part of everyday life and if we deny them the opportunity then we are causing more harm to their self-esteem than good. It is not an easy thing to do, deny a child something they want and they are very good at manipulating us, but when they grow up into emotionally healthy and resilient individuals, they will thank us I’m sure.