Frustration can sometimes look like anger, but this emotion is just a little bit different.  The underlying foundation of frustration is loss. As a child develops, they begin to realize that life is made up of choices, and when a choice is made, the option that was once available to him or her is gone.  This situation breeds frustration.  For example, a child may become very frustrated when they are asked by his or her parents to choose between having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or macaroni and cheese for lunch, (he or she often can’t have both… what parent really wants to prepare two different meals?)  This loss can also be felt when a child is unable to accomplish something that he or she wishes to achieve. For example, when a child is unable to ride a bike on his or her first attempt, there is a loss of a hoped-for skill, and the loss of a feeling of omnipotence—the belief that “I can do anything” is met with the reality that this is just not always the case.  

The period of the “terrible twos” is often characterized by the emergence of temper tantrums.  These are the result of a child realizing that they cannot have everything that he or she wants and cannot do anything he or she wants.  This is a harsh and painful reality that all children must face.  We as adults still struggle with this…”why can’t I have a brand new car…it’s just not fair.”  It is important for parents to be understanding and empathic to a child’s “wake up call” to the reality of the limits that the world sets upon us.  After all, parents once had to face this realization as well.  When a child acts out through temper tantrums or other means of expressing frustration, it is an understandably frustrating experience for a parent…and maybe a bit embarrassing if this happens on a long airplane ride.  However, if a child is to grow through this difficult stage of development in a healthy manner, parents need to meet the child where they are; they need to communicate their empathic understanding of a child’s frustration.  

A loving hug can do wonders for a child who feels the overwhelming frustration of a limiting world.  This embrace models, in a soothing and empathic way, that frustration needs to be controlled and held.  An empathic parent sets limits upon their child.  If a child’s frustration is not held, (and he or she is given both the peanut butter and jelly sandwich AND macaroni and cheese), then the parent is feeding into the child’s denial of the reality of the world.  Love and limits help a child to feel understood and supported as they wrestle with the loss of the belief that they, the world, and its inhabitants are perfect and limitless.    

As a child develops, they also begin to realize the scary truth that he or she is separate from their parents.  Children realize that their parents aren’t always able to protect them from a frustrating world.  Often, the frustration a child feels towards the world is directed toward their parents.  Parents can become villains--withholding and frustrating people that won’t give the child everything that he or she wants or needs.  This is another painful truth.  No parent, even the most highly attuned or attentive one, can be everything at anytime for his or her child…yes, it’s true that no person or parent is perfect.  A child often projects his or her frustration at the world on his or her disappointing imperfect parents…something that can be uncomfortable for a parent to experience.  By realizing that this frustration is normal, (and that you once went through it as well), may make it easier to empathically soothe a frustrated child and help the child to develop into an emotionally healthy adult.

PROBLEM: Children experience frustration when they realize that they cannot have or do everything they want.

SOLUTION: Parents need to realize that the experience of frustration is normal, as we have all gone through it. Limits and love are ways to help children understand and cope with their own frustration.  You may become the “bad guy” for awhile, as your child projects his frustration and loss upon you—resist personalizing it and reacting to it in an aggressive and defensive manner.

Author's Bio: 

Matt Casper, M.A. MFT; Matt is a licensed Psychotherapist with a private practice in Los Angeles, California. He graduated cum laude from Duke University where he studied personality psychology, comparative religion and film. He received his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the California Graduate Institute of Professional Psychology and Psychoanalysis and has worked with a diverse population including individual adults, teens and children as well as with groups and couples. Matt has been involved with the Maple Counseling Center, a non-profit counseling clinic, as well as with the Julia-Ann Singer Therapeutic School where he worked with children who fall somewhere on the Autism spectrum, and has served as a supervisor for teenagers at TEEN LINE, a hotline and website that provides teen-to-teen outreach for teenagers facing emotional challenges. Matt is also the author of a series of 12 books in the "Emotes!" series which aims to help children identify, express and manage their emotions.