My son gets frustrated and finds it hard to make decisions

Your Question

When small things done go my son’s way (ex: he can’t understand how to do something for homework, he needs something explained to him during his piano lesson, or he needs to pick out a snack quickly so he has time to eat or before bed) it is like his brain shuts down. He starts to get super frustrated. He cries. He is unable to make decisions or move on to the next step of the task. Nothing I do or say helps him calm down or move forward.
When this happens, he isn’t getting in trouble. As a parent I have been calm and helpful, trying to figure out what is going on and why all of the sudden picking out a snack from the pantry is an impossible task. I can’t figure out the cause of these “brain shut down moments”. Nothing I have done helps. Only time, usually about an hour, allows him to move on. During that hour, he can’t decide on anything to do to distract himself or to calm himself down. It’s really like one instant he is fine and the next a switch is turned off and he’s now frustrated, sad, unable to make decisions, unable to listen to others, and unable to tell us what just happened to cause it all. I am at a loss what to do


Hi there,

Thanks for getting in touch with Ask Robyn with what is going on for your son. It sounds like your son is finding decision making hard and can get quite overwhelmed in certain situations. It also sounds like you have been trying your best to support him in a gentle and patient way which is what we would recommend. Giving him that reassurance that he is not in trouble is important too and he is probably finding it hard to calm himself.

Although you haven’t mentioned what age your child is, it is important to know that this is common for children to feel frustrated or overwhelmed when making decisions or given instructions to follow. What can help is first validating those feelings e.g. “I know this is hard for you and I can see your upset…” and supporting him through the feelings with something like “let’s take 3 deep breaths together” or you may have a different strategy that could help calm him. Some parents may find reading a short story or singing a song can help here. Once you feel he has calmed down and is ready to have a conversation or listen, it may help to break down the instructions or help him in making decisions by breaking this down for him, e.g. suggest two options for him to choose from.

One thing that can really help in understanding your child’s response, as you have described his “brain shut down moments” may be watching this video of “flipping the lid” or “the hand model of the brain.” This highlights how when children and young people are stressed the part of their brain that is needed to help make decisions is not connected to the part for acting and regulating.

You may find it helpful to seek further support around this, such as talking to someone in your local HSE Primary Care Psychology team. Primary care centres often have weekly drop in advice clinics you can find your local primary care here: 

As we don’t have much information about your son’s age or what situations this occurs in, it may help to talk more about this, you can contact our Parent Support Line which can be contacted by email to [email protected] or by phone from Monday to Friday 9am – 1pm on 01 522 4300.


Take care,  


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