Kids with learning and attention issues may feel frustrated or angry more often than other kids do. Maybe your child is having these feelings too often or doesn’t know how to express them constructively. This can make it harder for him to learn, feel good about himself or accomplish goals.
As a parent, you can help your child manage these feelings better—or even learn how to prevent them in the first place.
The Difference Between Anger and Frustration
Frustration and anger are related emotions, but they’re not identical. Your child may feel frustrated when an obstacle prevents him from getting what he wants or from reaching a goal. This can make him feel vulnerable and upset.
Anger is usually a response to something he sees as an injustice, threat or humiliation. It can evoke the same feelings as frustration, but it’s a stronger emotion. He may express it by yelling, pushing, fighting or acting out.
Recognizing Your Child’s Frustration
Kids with learning and attention issues can get frustrated if they’re not able to meet expectations, even when they try. Frustrated kids may say things like:
- “It doesn’t matter whether I work on my homework for 20 minutes or two hours. Either way, it comes back all marked in red.”
- “I knew that history chapter on the bus this morning. But by the time I took the quiz after lunch, I couldn’t remember half of it.”
- “Some kids don’t want to be friends with me and I don’t know why.”
- “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t follow what’s going on in class.”
If they get too frustrated too often, kids may start to believe that no matter how hard they try, their efforts won’t have any effect. They can lose interest in learning and develop something called “learned helplessness.” That means that kids think there’s nothing they can do to get better grades, make friends or be understood or appreciated.
Once that happens, these chronically frustrated kids may:
- Just sit quietly in class. The teacher may not mind because they’re not causing problems. But they’re not engaged and they don’t try.
- Resist taking risks or trying new things because they think they’ll probably fail.
- Think that they have no control over their ability to succeed, whether it’s in school, during extracurricular activities like basketball or band, or in their interactions with other people.
- Clown around to distract people from their “failings.”
Recognizing Your Child’s Anger
In addition to being frustrated, most kids with learning and attention issues will be angry at one time or another. They may feel that:
- They’ve been dealt a bad hand in life.
- It’s not fair that things are easy for everyone else.
- No one understands them.
Kids may express their anger through tantrums, verbal outbursts, swearing, throwing things and fighting. They act out because they don’t have other ways of coping or managing what’s bothering them.
While peers and teachers seem like the most obvious targets, your child may vent his anger on you. It’s common for a child to sit on his anger all day at school. Then, once he comes home, those very powerful feelings erupt. Ironically, it’s because he trusts you that your child feels free to vent his anger. But it can be very confusing for parents, who desperately want to help. Find out what to do if your child is overly aggressive or lashes out.
Tips for Coping With Frustration and Anger
To help your child deal with his frustration and anger, try the following strategies. (These tips work for both emotions.)
- Show your support. Let your child know that you’re on his side. Tell him that you have ideas on how he can be more successful at school. And stress that you love him no matter what—even if he forgets all that math he studied so hard last night.
- Talk up strengths. Make your child aware of his strengths by describing what he’s good at with specific details. For example, if he sings well, you might say, “That song sounded great. You didn’t miss a note.” Don’t go overboard with the praise though, or it can sound false. In other words, maybe skip saying he’s ready for The Voice.
- Acknowledge his challenges. In a matter-of-fact way, note what aspects of learning seem to be most difficult for your child. If he knows what his challenges are, it’s easier for him to address them. You might say, “I’ve noticed that sometimes you don’t spell words right. Lots of people have that problem. There are strategies we can try to help you improve.”
- Teach persistence. Help your child realize that working on his weaknesses and improving on his strengths can help him succeed. When he’s struggling, he can draw on the strategies he’s developed to manage his weaknesses. Instead of saying, “What’s the point?” he can learn to say, “I should always run spell-check so I don’t get marked down for silly mistakes.”
- Set realistic goals. While it’s great for kids to be enthusiastic about what they want to do, it’s also important to help them to think realistically. Believing he’s going to win his very first race may just leave your child frustrated; aiming to run it in a realistic amount of time can let him succeed every time. It can also help to emphasize that the process is just as important as the end goal.
- Nurture passions. Pay attention to what makes your child excited. Music? Skateboards? Tools? Help him get good at something he likes. That’s one of the best ways to build a sense of competence. That feeling can translate into other areas, too. Be sure to choose a setting where he can succeed and feel comfortable. For example, he might do better playing sports on a recreational team than on a high-profile travel team.
It’s a good idea to set limits with clear consequences when your child acts out. But make sure he knows it’s the behavior that’s the problem, not him. You can also arm your child with strategies to prevent him from losing control and ways to calm down when he needs to.
Remember that you don’t have to go it alone. Learn about the types of emotional help available for your child.