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Sailing out of the Whirlpool of Frustration

by David Morgan || 15 December 2021

As parents we all get frustrated at times with our children. And our children often have very similar frustrations with us! So everyone is getting frustrated and often we are then all behaving in a way that leads to more frustration. That is why we call it the Whirlpool of Frustration, because it feeds on itself and can get more and more violent.

A degree of frustration is just part of life. Rather like traffic in a busy city, it is not worth mentioning, except to entertain! The real question is: what is the best way to handle the frustration, for the optimum outcome for everyone?

As the adults involved, we generally need to initiate this process. We cannot expect our children to be the calming party guiding everyone out of the whirlpool, although I have seen that happening on occasion!

We are all familiar with the frustrations of parenthood. First, there is too much to do, there is too little time and money to do it with and our children are still working out how to be easy human beings to live with! And second, we are constantly worried about whether we are getting it right, whether our children are going to be okay and what the rest of the world is thinking about the whole thing! These things will never change.

The best place to start is actually to study your child’s frustrations. Deepening your empathy for those will help to lower your own, without even doing anything else. So let’s take a close look at the life of a typical 5 year-old. You will be familiar with these, but it is good to remind oneself of them:

  • You have an older sibling who seems to be able to do everything better than you. It is only natural since they are older, but that is invisible to you.
  • You also have a little sibling, who has inevitably been taking up 80% of your parent’s time for the past two years. So you feel you have been getting no real attention (even if you have).
  • When you do get attention it is often because you have done something that has been viewed as wrong. So it is not very nice.
  • At the same time, you get almost no attention for the dozens of things you are now getting right each day. Those are just expected and go unremarked-on.
  • But… on balance, you feel any attention is better than none. You have found that a bit of playing up delivers the attention you crave. It leaves you feeling sad because your parents get cross, but it is better than being ignored.
  • Your mother has just had another baby too. So now your attention has dropped from 20% to 2% and both your parents are very, very tired, all the time.
  • At the same time, you have started going to school. This is quite scary. You are trying to learn how to act in a social environment that includes children twice your age. Some of the other children are not very nice, but you have to be brave about it. You also feel exhausted after a whole day at school.
  • Sometimes you are so tired that it is really hard to focus your eyes on small text. It feels slightly blurry and impossible to read.
  • You find some of the learning at school easy and fun, but some of it you find hard. That is also really worrying because you might look stupid in front of your new friends if you get things wrong. Some of them always seem to know the right answer.
  • You really want to succeed at these new things, but choosing to appear unbothered seems safer than really trying but failing. Being unbothered can seem cool, but struggling definitely doesn’t.
  • Back at home, your tired and hassled parent shouts across the house for you to come and do your reading. Just the tone of their voice starts to make you feel worried.
  • Now you sit down to do some reading practice. You find it hard and you can feel the frustration of your parent beside you. Your parent sits in silence listening to you struggling and waits for you to make a mistake. As soon as you do, there is quite a sharp and frustrated “No!” beside you.
  • Now you start to feel really stressed and your brain starts to feel fuzzy because of the stress. Your brain is moving towards a fight, flight or freeze response and your higher brain function is shutting down.
  • As you start to become more grumpy, or more avoiding or more silent, you can feel your parent’s frustration rising again. You know you are heading towards that frustration becoming anger. So your stress level rises again until you are almost incapable of working out a single word.
  • Eventually the tension is too much to deal with. So you have a tantrum or run away or slide into silence and a faraway stare. Anything that makes the pain stop.

Does any of that sound familiar? And is any of it unreasonable?

By the way, if you are unsure how hard it is to start to learn to read, I suggest you sign up for some Greek or Arabic on Duolingo. English text is just as much a load of gobbledygook as Greek until you have learned how to read it. Then it seems easy.

Now that we can see your child’s side of things, what is the solution? How can we make reading practice relatively easy and fun to do together?

Step 1

I would suggest the first step is to try to carve even 5 minutes of pure, positive attention on your child each day. It can just be a hug or sitting watching the TV holding hands, but with just them. Mobile phones have to be ignored for these five minutes. Chatting to your child one on one is obviously good, but not essential. All you need is a sense of loving intimacy.

You will find that when you do this, your other children will instantly spot it and try to pile into the happy little scene or even try to break it up. But you have to do everything possible to keep the focus on the one child if you can. It is okay to say “I am just having a few moments with XXX, so could you be a sweetie and entertain yourself for a few minutes? Thank you so much!”

Step 2

Next you are now going to prep for your new-style reading session with a bit of self-image building for your child, well before your next session. It is worth waiting until you have an opportunity for this step, before you go to Step 3. If you live in a lighthouse miles from anyone, then you can deliver this yourself directly to your child instead.

Ideally, in Step 2 you find an opportunity to say to someone else, but in the hearing of your child “I feel XXX is really starting to get reading. It is so tough for the little things, but he/she is really bright and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. He/She has been trying very hard.”

I know that you are perhaps not really feeling that way about any of it, but just trust me! Starting to build your child’s self-confidence is a huge part of this game. Imagine you have a time machine and you are talking about how things are in a few weeks, rather than today!

Step 3

We are now going to plunge into a reading session that is going to feel so different to past sessions. Obviously, that means it has to be actually different to past sessions. If you run it in the way that feels natural, then it will be the same as all the other ones.

This is the moment of real challenge for you. Behaving differently to what feels natural is hard, until your new habit is formed. 

Some puritans feel that being too nice to a child can somehow spoil them. That is a misunderstanding. It is letting a child misbehave that spoils them. Just being nice to a child makes them nicer themselves.

The next element is crucial. I would start with a line like “I have only got 5 minutes, but shall we try to get today’s reading done?” 

This needs to be delivered in a bright, cheerful way, even if your heart is still feeling heavy at the thought of it. Again, trust me on it! 

Try to suggest this at a moment that has been positive anyhow. Maybe you can plan it for after your five minutes of pure attention.

The reason we limit the time is to limit the sense of dread for your child. You MUST keep to the time limit. Set an alarm if necessary. Just stop after 5 minutes, whatever has happened, so that you build trust in these limits.

Step 4

You have now sat down to read together. Be super-positive about literally everything your child gets right. You should not be silent for more than a few seconds before making another positive or encouraging noise. 

I will praise absolutely anything. I will praise their effort while they are just staring at a word. I will praise every sound they get out. You don’t have to wait for a complete word to be correctly read to say something positive. I have not counted them, but I am definitely over 100 positive noises in a 10-minute session.

All of this praise is going into the child’s brain and helping them to get it right. I promise you, it is like sprinkling pixie dust.

If they do make a mistake, I never, ever, ever say a negative word like ‘no’. It is much, much better to empathise with the difficulty, with lines like “this is a tricky one, let’s go through it together”. If you feel your frustration rising, just think of me handing you a sheet of Greek to read to me!

Step 5

Now stop when you said you would stop and thank your child for all their hard work. 

Make it a fulsome thank you from your heart, even if it has still been quite a tough session. If you do, each session will get easier and easier. If you don’t, each session will probably get harder and harder.

Being Alert to the Causes of Difficulty

If you apply all of this and do not see your child doing better, then please do get in touch with us because there must be something causing that. We can probably spot it in a matter of minutes. 

Or read our book The 9 Main Causes of Reading Difficulty, to try to spot it yourself.

David Morgan has a BSc in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Education. Before becoming a literacy specialist, he was a business manager, and before that a cavalry officer in the British Army. David is the founder of David Morgan Education, inventor of trainertext visual phonics, and creator of His life's work is to end illiteracy in children across the English-speaking world.