Frustration: that jagged feeling when no matter how hard we try, the "something" we're after is just beyond our grasp. Parenthood is festooned with this emotion, and so is childhood. I'm usually an even-keeled person, but parenthood requires a higher level of patience and frustration-tolerance than I possessed going in.
As my kids grew, I noticed them also getting entangled in frustration's grip. I wanted to understand this emotion and to be able to think straight when it ensnares me. I also wanted to develop a language to help coach my kids through it when they found themselves in frustration's clutches.
So I started to study my frustration in the interest of trying to manage it better:
Frustration is just another emotion. Feeling it isn't bad. But it's a big emotion, and it can be hard to maintain our self-control when we're feeling it. To that end, I now say to myself when I'm in this state: "You're not emotionally qualified to respond to this right now. Taking a break is a better choice than responding in a way that will probably be regrettable."
Indulging Frustration Usually Isn't Satisfying
Frustration has caused me to say and do messy things, like throw or kick something. In those instances, I thought that indulging in those releases would pop the frustration bubble and feel satisfying. But it really doesn't. It usually just makes a mess or hurts me. I've cleaned up enough frustration-triggered messes that avoiding that is now part of the conversation I have with myself.
I remind myself that it actually takes less energy to pause and regain control than to do the indulgent thing. The last thing any parent needs is more clean-up. Once I found an internal narrative to help me understand my frustration, I was able to externalize that same language to help guide my kids.
Take a Coach Role
I want to try and help them understand what they are experiencing.
When I see my kids' frustration mounting, I assume a calm voice. I make sure not to sound mad. I don't want to fuel the flames or to make them feel judged. I want to try and help them understand what they are experiencing. I say some variation of this: "You're feeling frustrated. I know that's an uncomfortable feeling, and it's such a big feeling that it might seem like it's in control of you. But it's not. You are still in control. You get to decide how to handle this frustration. What helps me is to take a break. You can go back to the thing that's tripping you up, but it's hard to think around your frustration right now, so step away."
I can see what my kids are thinking as they grapple with frustration. I know them. I know this emotion. So I offer them the narrative that plays out in my head. "It may seem like it will feel good to pop that frustration bubble by doing something wild — like breaking something, hitting, or saying something mean — but that will probably lead to some kind of a mess. I've learned to stop myself because doing something wild doesn't help and it's messy."
Be Empathetic and Firm
It's hard to talk a frustrated kid through his or her emotional experience. That calm voice may be the last thing he or she wants to hear, and the child might lash out. But I emphasize that just because we feel something deeply doesn't mean we should trust that emotion to shape our actions.
I say: "Your frustration doesn't give you a license to speak to me with disrespect." I want them to understand their feelings and to develop internal and external language to discuss their feelings. But I also need them to know that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions, even when they are in an emotionally heightened state. A person doesn't get a pass to act any old way just because they feel frustrated.
Once I get the kids calmed down, we can talk about what is causing their frustration and how to deal with that. But we have to first take the emotional edge off. This approach has helped my kids and me. Frustration can feel like such a road block, and it helps us to think through that, own our feelings, and cultivate responses that don't require clean-up.