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HOW CHILDREN MANAGE FRUSTRATION AFFECTS ABILITY TO FOCUS AND LEARN:
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
Children begin to construct strategies for coping with frustration in their
early years. Every day, whether they are aware of it or not, parents influence
how their children deal with frustration. Indeed, parents have many opportunities
during their children’s early years to advance or hinder their lifelong
ability to cope with frustration. Educators and health care professionals also
have opportunities to inform parents about child-rearing practices that help
their youngsters manage frustration constructively. Children who learn how
to cope successfully with frustration are more likely than those who don’t
to become adults who live satisfying lives.
The ability to tolerate frustration
has important implications for learning. By its nature, the learning process
brings children into challenging situations that create anxiety and frustration
within them. A child needs a foundation of emotional security to take the risks
that are necessary to engage the unfamiliar individual steps required to learn
new subject matter or gain a skill.
If a young child must regularly experience
unmet developmentally appropriate needs, the youngster often will acquire a
brittle emotional posture of fear and/or anger. In a variety of ways, the child
will show anxious concern.
Unable to say it in words, the young child’s
searching glances, agitated body movements, emotional outbursts, and other
behavior pronounce these messages: “I
am in need.” “I am uncomfortable.” “I am scared.” “I
feel angry.” If children must endure a pattern of deleterious parenting
practices, at the first hint of frustration they become more demanding and
inflexible. If normal developmental needs are consistently frustrated, children
create a variety of defense systems to avoid stress and discomfort. These children,
preoccupied by anxiety, do not have the resilience to make the attempts required
for learning. For a child, to attempt is to risk.
A child will not be emotionally
fearful and on guard if a trust that loving care will be provided to meet needs
has been achieved. A stability develops over time that instills an inner felt
security. Unthreatened by feelings of want, children develop an emotional flexibility,
and as a result, can successfully tolerate new and different experiences. The
child also can accept periods of mild strain, without crippling anxiety or
fear. As a result, with trust and without fear, risks necessary to learn can
Secure Children Risk and Learn
Along with a sound emotional foundation engendered by a predictable and
secure environment, parents should allow their children opportunities to
exercise their curiosity, explore, and make attempts to overcome challenges
and learn. From birth, children can learn gradually to tolerate and overcome
An infant’s senses and interest are awakened when she hears
sounds from a brightly colored rattle held within reach. The infant becomes
occupied with feelings of curiosity and desire, but also experiences feelings
of frustration. If her attempt to reach for the rattle is successful, the
child learns thereby that she can act to satisfy curiosity and desire. More
importantly, the infant learns to tolerate the frustration that accompanies
wanting but not having, and striving to obtain.
When the same child at six
months old is sitting on the floor and notices an interesting toy across
the room, she simultaneously is filled with an excited desire to have the
toy and distress and frustration from not having it. However, with courage
rooted in a brief life history of tolerating both desire and its accompanying
frustration, she decides to risk it. She crawls toward the toy. She continues
to feel both excitement and frustration as she nears it. When she reaches
her goal and is able to grab the toy, she is happy and satisfied. The significant
lesson she has taught herself is as important as her happiness. She has learned
once again that she can invest herself, tolerate frustration, and achieve
a desired goal.
Some parents subvert their child’s self-assertion and
undermine the child’s
ability to take risks and overcome frustration. For example, one type of parent
would have noticed the child crawling toward the toy and interfered with her
efforts by taking the toy to her. Giving the toy to the child would have denied
her the opportunity to pursue her own goals, and thereby to teach herself to
tolerate frustration. This parenting style can prevent children from developing
trust in their ability to feel; tolerate; and by their efforts, overcome frustration.
type of parent would, as the child crawled toward the toy, move the toy farther
from the infant. These parents overwhelm the child with too much frustration.
They do this by taking control over the play away from the child and making
achievement more difficult and less risk worthy than the child expected.
This can cause loss of motivation to learn. Also damaged are the youngster’s
feelings of efficacy and self-trust. Challenges to the toleration of frustration
are an inherent part of a child’s self-chosen play experiences.
and health care workers have opportunities to improve the learning climate
by helping parents and other adults to recognize that making mistakes is an
essential part of the learning process. Our culture is often very critical
of people who make mistakes. This is especially true when those mistakes are
made by children and adolescents. Self-doubt and the fear of personal inadequacy
often are created in a child when adults enact culturally derived, negative
attitudes toward mistakes. An adult’s caustic or demeaning reactions
to a child’s mistakes can inhibit that youngster’s motivation to
take the risks essential to learn a skill or acquire knowledge. The ability
to focus on a learning task is affected by the parent’s responsiveness
to the youngster’s physical, emotional and social needs.
Felt Threat and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Children must create ways to distract from or defend themselves against
painful anxieties. These distractions allow the child to cope. Some typical
behavior patterns children use to cover up and distract themselves from their
anxieties are silly or aggressive behavior, excessive talking, acting out,
procrastination, daydreaming, passivity, and withdrawal. The purpose of distractions
is to create a pseudo-existence that masks disturbing anxieties. Although
these defenses help the child avoid and/or cope with painful feelings, they
interfere with organized learning attempts.
To learn, a child must be able
to focus. To focus on a learning task, children must be able to quiet themselves
emotionally and physically. Focusing on a specific learning task requires
choosing not to pay attention to other internal or external stimuli, but
instead to calm themselves so they can focus on the learning task. Children
who have suffered a disturbing psychosocial life with overwhelming frustration
will find they come into direct contact with their painful feelings and anxieties
when they try to calm themselves. They distract themselves from this characteristic,
noxious anxiety when they begin to feel anxious. The act of focusing requires
the child to sacrifice the very defenses that have been self-protective.
This is a risk that an anxious child is unwilling or unable to take. For
the most part, these children neither choose not to focus nor to distract
themselves. Their defensive reactions become like reflexes and are automatic.
For these children, focus-based learning is threatening. The child, therefore,
runs away from organized learning. These are dynamics that cause attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD behavior is symptomatic. Rather than relying
primarily on drugs or behavioral techniques to ameliorate symptoms, attempts
should be made to diagnose and relieve the cause(s) of the ADHD behavior.
Drugs cover up symptoms, and therefore make accurate diagnosis and long-term
This article was published in The Brown University
Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, February 2000, 16(2).