How to handle frustration
If you are a parent, you’re probably familiar with your children’s expression of frustration. Children often get to their frustration point rather easily and let it be known in big out loud ways. Parents often get to their own frustration point in return rather easily when their kids express those super frustrating signs of frustration. Pretty soon the family squabble has erupted, with both, parent and child feeling locked into a power struggle over who’s the most frustrated (or frustrating).
You know – all of that whining, complaining, arguing when they can’t have what they want. Or raising their voice, begging, pleading, negotiating for a certain toy or item to be purchased at the store. Having a meltdown when they can’t go to their friend’s house because they have school work to finish, or a family gathering to attend instead.
Getting angry when you impose a time limit on their screen time. Or when they’re actually off of their screens per your order, but are restless and bored and complain obnoxiously that “There’s nothing to do!!“
Every day frustrations can derail the day, several times a day.
Refusing to do homework and throwing it across the room or hiding it under the bed and not turning it in when it’s too hard. Not getting a good grade and being sarcastic with you, or with the teacher about it, accusing her of hating them. Calling you names or saying that they hate you or that you’re the worst parent ever when you’ve said no to their request (or more likely, to their demand). Rolling their eyes or ignoring you when you make a perfectly reasonable request of them (like to clean up their room, or help with getting dinner on the table) or when you have interrupted their social time.
Often a child’s/tweens‘/Teen’s frustration looks like they are purposefully doing the opposite of what we ask, or defying us; trying to make us mad or manipulate us into losing control. Or needling us, trying to push our buttons.
Kids’ frustration can trigger parents’ frustration
With all the daily eruptions of frustration happening all around us (at work, on the road, in our communities, in the world) it’s easy to see how our own sense of frustration gets triggered when we come home and experience our kids’ (immature) ways of expressing their frustration. We may react in an equally immature way.
…And it’s hard to see that there might actually be a gift present in those frustration outbursts that we work very hard to avoid. Hard to believe that in those moments of our own frustration (anger, overwhelm, irritation) with our kids’ behavior, that the thing most called for is actually crying… No, not you sitting and crying in a puddle in the middle of the kitchen floor because the situation is so difficult and you don’t know what else to do (though that is definitely called for in other moments), but actually helping our children get to the cry that’s underneath their accumulation of frustration.
… WHAT? Help my kids get to the cry when they’re already frustrated and acting a fool with all of their crying and screaming and moaning and basically temper tantrumming?!? WHAAT? How can that be useful? That will just teach them that it’s OK to have a hissy fit for everything… No, I’m not gonna do that…
No, no negative emotions on my watch
Naturally, as busy parents with a million and one stressors and frustrations already on our plate, we make our best effort to block the negative and often unpleasantly emotional reactions from erupting or taking place in our already-not-optimally-functioning homes.
We may give in to our children’s rudeness in order to avoid the big meltdown that we know will occur if we don’t do what they say. Or we try to bury our head in the sand and hope their frustrations go away or work themselves out on their own.
We are tired, stressed, feeling under-appreciated ourselves. We certainly don’t want them to feel hurt from some mean interaction with a school mate; or upset with us when we haven’t been able to be available. We don’t want them to feel damaged in any way, especially by us. We also don’t want them to feel any other “negative“ emotion.
We are overwhelmed that they seem to especially show their less-than-stellar ways of expressing frustration at the most inopportune times – the end of the day when everyone is exhausted, or when making the transition home or off of screen time, or doing chores; before homework; or in the morning when we have an important meeting to get out the door in a hurry for, or late at night before bed when all we can think of is going to sleep.
No good time for stress to hit
Or it seems that the frustrations erupt whenever we have other deadlines and demands to pay attention to. Often we’re in a transition time of our own too, so by definition we’re a little more vulnerable, a little more unsteady and reactionary, and we react in ways that aren’t so helpful and may, in fact, make things worse.
We react not as our best selves. We might start to lecture (that same lecture that we’ve already given 1 billion times); we get critical; we raise our voice; we have that terrible tone in our voice of irritation, escalation, disapproval, intolerance. We feel out of control and start to plead, whine, threaten, be sarcastic, demand or dictate that they don’t show their feelings that way, or disrespect us like that.
Vulnerability lurks underneath the outward expression of frustration
However, underneath all of that external expression of frustration, we feel overwhelmed, sad about the state of affairs; hurt and reminded of times early in our life where we felt ignored, unloved, bad somehow. We feel vulnerable and inadequate and at a loss about what to do. We feel weary; like things have been so hard for so long, or we can never do anything right. So disappointed in them, and then, of course, in ourselves. We feel tender or little ourselves. We do want to sit and cry…
Certainly, our kids don’t have any idea that that’s how we’re feeling on the inside… Just like it’s hard for us to imagine that our kids are feeling something tender and wounded underneath their eruptions of anger or rage or frustration.
What’s the outcome of all of this frustration?
Kids, when they’re frustrated, have a tendency to become aggressive somehow – either toward others (siblings, parents, teachers, classmates) or toward themselves. Parents, like kids, do the same. We are all vulnerable human beings that have less-than-stellar ways of showing our frustration and distress when we are pushed.
So all of this provides a clue about why, when our kids are acting out their frustrations, our job as parents is to help them GET TO THE CRY.
If we can sustain ourselves through their emotional outbursts (and not give in, or run and hide, or engage in some nasty power struggle with them), we can be present to their frustration with kindness, and increase the chances of helping them move through it.
If they get stuck in their frustration, (which can happen when as parents we engage in a battle or power struggle with them) they’ll become aggressive somehow. If they move through it instead, they’ll manage some adaptation and acceptance and be able to make peace with what’s lost.
They need our presence, and acceptance of the disappointment they feel about whatever loss they’ve experienced (independence, connection, affiliation, fun, things not being the way they want, etc.).
Why it’s important to Get to the Cry
When they can GET TO THE CRY, they go through a mini cycle of the stages of grief and this makes them more resilient, more knowing of how to handle difficult experiences, more confident about their own capacity to move through hard things. Getting to the Cry involves connecting with one’s true feelings – which is part of what being emotionally intelligent means.
Haven’t you had the experience of having a good cry about something that you’ve been really upset about or frustrated by and felt so much better afterward? Getting to the Cry allows for release and relief of those feelings that are built up.
Making deeper connections with your kids
Letting your children get to the cry and staying as steady as you can with it actually increases the connection you have with them – which is the singular most important condition that they need, to be able to face all the challenges they will have in life. Getting to the cry keeps frustration from turning into hurtful aggression toward a child herself, or toward others.
So how exactly to do it?
How to help your child Get to the Cry in the middle of their frustration outburst, and keep your own cool at the same time?
- First, take a deep breath. Try to find some space to breathe slowly and bring some calm to your heart. Hard to steady them when you’re unsteady yourself.
- Notice how you’re feeling and give a name to it (irritated, annoyed, angry, exhausted… Frustrated…). Sometimes just naming it gives you some space around the feeling, a little more room to breathe. Practicing naming your own feelings helps to be able to name your kids’ feelings as well.
- Try not to personalize their bad behavior. Realize they are letting off some steam, and right now this is the best tool they’ve got. Plus, if their meltdowns have “worked“ in the past, they won’t just stop doing it now because you’re ready to help them get to the cry. When you don’t take personally all of the negative stuff they’re saying or acting, you actually empower them to be more resourceful, and aware of how they can impact others. When you don’t take things personally you free yourself and give them freedom as well.
- Come alongside your child rather than AT him. Be curious rather than furious about what she feels. Help them talk about what’s underneath their frustration rather than just ineffectively vent and complain.
- Be OK with seeing them be sad or mad. Don’t tell them how they should or should not feel. Remember, if you want them to be connected to you, your job is to be compassionate about whatever they feel, not selective about which feelings are acceptable to present. Try to hear all feelings with equanimity and not try to talk them out of their feelings.
- Listen. Hear them out. You don’t have to say too much. (In fact, it’s best if you hear yourself debating, bargaining, negotiating, giving advice, lecturing, moralizing, etc., that you try to get quiet instead). See if you can identify their feeling (aggravation, annoyance, pissed, upset, sad, scared, etc.). “I hear how pissed you are that you can’t go to the movies tonight. That must feel pretty rotten. I’d be pretty mad too if I couldn’t do something that was important to me.“
- Gently but firmly move to a deeper layer of emotion: “It’s really disappointing, isn’t it, to miss out on something you know will be fun.“ “It hurts when it feels like we are so unfair and like you’re the only kid who can’t go.“ “You probably wish you had different parents right now, huh?“ “You’re so mad right now that you’re afraid you’re going to cry.“
Try to move to the deeper emotion and let your young person know you understand where he’s coming from and why his frustration is so big. It generally never works to get someone to back down by throwing a heavier harder bigger punch, so don’t battle your kids about their frustration.
When they do cry, or fight back tears, or tell you all the other things that happened today that really hurt them and that’s why they’re so mad, accept and love those feelings.
8. Of course, as the parent, you have to know, own and respect your own frustrations and emotions, with kindness too. Check how you act when you’ve had a really frustrating day. Be willing to examine your own expression of emotions. Try to notice how that comes across to and affects the people around you.
Do your own self-care (yoga, exercise, a walk, meditation or mindfulness practices, BREATHING) so you have the resilience to help your kids with their frustrations. Model positive ways of dealing with difficult emotions. GET TO YOUR OWN CRY.
…Your thoughts about helping your kids get to the cry? Reply back and share.
If you or someone you care about needs help Getting to the Cry in your family, please contact me for parenting therapy and support.
Also, don’t miss a FREE parenting series happening NOW about raising children with challenges – that is chock full of ideas and support to help you get through more gracefully this time of parenting. Susan Stiffelman interviews several experts and the talks are free to listen to for 48 hours. Click here to register.
For more ideas on how to bring more calm and less worry into your life, click here for a free email course on Mindfulness.
Listening with Heart
Cindi Rivera, MFT
Marriage, Family Therapist