stressed child with mom

By Melissa Brown, PsyD

After practicing for weeks, your son didn’t make the team.
Your daughter thought they were friends, but she wasn’t invited to the party.
No matter how hard he studies, he can’t earn the grade he needs.
Although all the signs were there, he asked someone else out on a date.

Though disappointing and frustrating, these are common scenarios in our lives and a normal part of growing up, right? We don’t always get what we want (or expect), and that can be maddening. Surely, you can think of a few adults who have a difficult time managing emotions. So, its not surprising that children feel it on a whole other level because they are less equipped to deal with frustration constructively. Either way, the struggle is real, as they say.

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How to Deal with Frustration

How we react, however, makes all the difference. For some, frustration can drive us to work harder, find a resolution, speak up, or accept the consequences with grace. For others, it builds resentment and negativity that can carry over into other aspects of their lives. This can affect relationships and personalities long-term.

We cannot always control outcomes or our child’s feelings. However, we can help change their perspective and equip them with the tools to deal with life’s frustrations. Frustration isn’t necessarily a “bad” emotion in and of itself, as mentioned earlier. It can motivate us to find alternatives in achieving a goal or develop a strong character. Left unchecked, however, it can become problematic if kids stay in this headspace and are unable to see beyond the hurdle. Another concern is if frustration is disguised as envy or entitlement.

We always encourage parents to talk with their kids during adolescence – during times of conflict and peace. This can help differentiate all their feelings, as well as how to move away from a victim mentality. Otherwise, kids grow up thinking everything should go their way. When it doesn’t, the negative thought process spirals and replays over and over, turning into anger, apathy, or worse: rage. It is also important to provide your kids with realistic solutions regarding these frustrations.  This can be done through verbal examples or simply demonstrating how you manage your frustrations.

How Frustration Affects Your Child

When consumed with anger – on a field, in a classroom, or among their peers, children’s bodies become tense and may affect performance or concentration. Think tense jaws, clenched fists, their heart pounding out of their chest, and racing thoughts. This is not the same as adrenaline, which can also go hand-in-hand with excitement and positive anticipation, which often propels a kid to jump higher, run faster, or visualize victory. With frustration, the negative mindset has taken over. The body reacts in concert and coordination is lost, along with focus. Some call this a mind-body connection. It can work to our advantage or disadvantage.

Eventually, some kids give up trying to reach their goals or engage in activities and even relationships if their anger cannot be redirected and they feel a sense of despair. This defeated mentality leads to isolation and unproductivity, not to mention depression and generalized anxiety. Parents don’t want to see their kids quit. Therefore, they need to take the lead – along with coaches, teachers, and other parents – in addressing feelings and barriers throughout adolescence.

There is a point when you push your kids and give them the speech about trying and effort, or seeing something through to the end. Sometimes, however, you get to the point where you need to help your child accept limitations or even recognize perhaps their frustration lies within, and rather than taking personal inventory, they are lashing out and pointing fingers.  Keeping a realistic perspective is important. As the adult in the situation, it is your job to provide this to your child. There are times when quitting that team or letting go of a goal is not a failure.

How to React to Your Child’s Frustration

As a parent, also ask yourself how quickly you rescue your child when things don’t go his or her way or even dismiss his or her attitude altogether? Kids are influenced by your response to whatever stands between them and their goal. Remember when they fell off their bike for the first time? Did you rush to their side fraught with worry and transfer your fear? Did you yell for them to stand up and try again from 20 feet away seemingly unfazed? Or did you show your concern in a calm manner, but also encourage her to try again?

Frustration is a natural reaction in life. But whether it leads to fear, anger, and defeat or it is channeled into a more appropriate way can make all the difference in your child’s experiences in life. The keyword is “appropriate.” By accepting the frustration, yet demonstrating positivity while looking for solutions, your children will likely follow this approach in the future. You can stop the cycle of negativity that circles the drain by setting an example and communicating with your kid, no matter what their age. Start with a few of these techniques in diffusing whatever situation you encounter:

  • Take deep breaths.
  • Ask questions and listen.
  • Identify the culprit or reason for their frustration.
  • Respond by validating their feelings followed by solution-seeking.
  • Encourage using a controlled voice.
  • Establish rules before a meltdown (for example, we don’t storm off and not communicate during a frustrating moment).
  • Redirect emotions or activity so it benefits your child (for example, take a break from an activity, eat something, for a walk, and take a short nap).

Read on to help your child through the years as they encounter life’s disappointments and conflicts at home and in school.

Tips for Dealing with Frustration – An age-by-age guide

Elementary (Ages 5-11)

Frustration often results when a child feels powerless and out of control. How many times have you engaged in the battle of what to wear or what to eat? By providing options, you help your child feel empowered. This does not necessarily put him or her in charge. At this age, you can maintain control of the situation while appearing to compromise between the jeans or the shorts … the meatballs or the chicken.

When it comes to friendships or getting something they want, it is best to get ahead of frustration. Talk about alternative ways to handle stress, anger, defeat, exclusion, and other feelings before they occur. Compromising and sharing are important life lessons to teach our children – whether it’s the spotlight, a toy, or another friend. Young children are typically self-serving, even if they are naturally kind. Teaching them that it’s okay for their friend to play with others. Or that by giving up a favorite toy for a while they bring joy to another child. It is a part of growing and establishing empathy at an early age.

You may notice triggers and patterns that set your adolescent off and some scenarios may not be avoidable. Everyone gets tired and hungry, for instance. Young children appear frustrated as a result of basic needs that, if addressed, can ward off tantrums or outbursts. By recognizing these patterns, you can both get ahead of the curve and minimize frustrations. Below are a few tips to guide you in redirecting your child.

  • Give them responsibilities. It is important for a child to feel invested in an activity and that he or she plays an important role. It helps them to maintain focus and feel both productive and proud. As long as the responsibility is age-appropriate, your child should find immediate gratification in finishing whatever task you give them. This can help ease your burdens, too. From feeding the dog to emptying the trash, responsibility breeds independence. It also communicates the concept of working together and earning privileges, which carry over into their adult lives.
  • Ask for their opinion or help. Allow your child to demonstrate his/her strengths or share their knowledge with you. He or she will feel more connected and simply heard. Many children don’t think they have a voice. Has your child ever shouted, “You never listen to me!” or “You don’t understand me!” We ask adults to repeat back what someone else said to show empathy and comprehension. And we need to do the same with kids. Often, we’re only thinking about our response while the other person is speaking their mind. Communication can sometimes veer from the present and instead, focus on either past behavior or our future comebacks.
  • Refuse to engage in power struggles. Again, this is a good opportunity to present choices as an empowerment tool to reduce frustration. Consistency also is key. When your own frustrations creep in either because you’re running late or feel embarrassed by their behavior, your child will remember that moment of weakness and not see it as an exception to the rule. Make your expectations clear regarding behavior and responsibilities. Stand by your word, otherwise, you are setting the stage for future power struggles and general disrespect.
  • Allow natural consequences. Helping your child curtail his or her reaction is not the same as padding their feelings and trying to prevent conflict or disappointment altogether. If your child hits or throws an object out of frustration and receives punishment at school or home, use it as a teaching moment. It’s also important to have your child apologize for any unacceptable behavior as a result of their frustration.


Middle School (Ages 12-14)

Drama, drama, drama! These years are considered some of the most awkward. During this time adolescents experience physical and emotional transformations unlike almost any other in their lives. Trying to fit in and yet stand out among the crowd, while no longer identifying as a child or a young adult, tweens and young teens experience more than their share of frustration.

The playing field was leveled in elementary school where almost everyone was viewed and treated equally among their peers. Now, bodies change at different rates – hello hormones – and students are separated by their academic and physical aptitudes. Socioeconomic status, family dynamics, and even backgrounds become more apparent.

This also is a time when friendships are transient and at the same time mean everything to your child. They may also begin to experience their first crushes and begin trying on boyfriend or girlfriend labels. It’s also an age when their own identities are called into question. Add to that the desire to be “liked”, both literally and figuratively thanks to social media, and everyone is trying to survive the perfect storm.

For parents, it may be difficult to discern between typical moodiness and a pattern of negativity. This is the age when nothing seems fair and everything is out of their control. Hypersensitivity and general awareness are at an all-time high. Kids in this age range are also more advanced and connected to adult issues thanks to the Internet, further elevating frustration: namely our own.

Exposure to situations otherwise not encountered until later in their lives now is introduced during adolescence. This is a time when their brains are still forming and impulse control is lacking. As a result, a good amount of frustration felt by boys and girls in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades involve friendships. And these are ever-changing, complicated, and significant. Academics also play a part in the frustration and stress felt by this group. Below are ways to help your child in the areas wrought with drama and uncertainty. Buckle up, because these years may be the bumpiest of all.

  • Navigating friendships. One day she’s her BFF and the next day they are enemies. Relationships at this age are fleeting. Rivalries are bitter and grow much bigger than necessary thanks to social media. And often betrayals are unforgivable. Romantic aspirations are blooming and, as mentioned earlier, kids are more advanced in part to media and today’s cultural climate. These are the years to really dig into personal boundaries and self-respect with your child. Teach kindness, acceptance, and when to stand up for themselves or others. Frustration may surface from knowing something or someone is wrong, but not wanting to rock the boat or being seen as a tattletale. When it comes to the social scene in middle school, they feel literally stuck in the “middle.” Often kids are caught in between the latest argument among friends, and it’s a difficult place to exist. Between gossip, taking sides, and the inability to disengage from the drama since it follows them outside of school through social media and other extra-curricular activities, friendships can feel more like a tug of war. Young people are constantly mediating conflict. School counselors and open conversations at home and with those individuals your child admires, could go a long way in helping handle the frustrations. This is also a moment to help your child see that middle ground does exist.  If someone does not want to be your child’s friend (or they do not want to be someone’s friend) teach them that there can be a cohesive middle.  They can exist in the same space, being kind without having to have a defined friendship. Nor do they have to be mortal enemies. Temptations are another facet of friendships and “fitting in.” This is around the time kids begin to experiment with drugs, alcohol, smoking, and dangerous or risky behaviors. If your child chooses to take the high road, that can create frustration. Peers may alienate your child to punish him or her, or to feel better about themselves. Remind your student that for as many who choose the destructive paths, there are plenty of people who refuse to go with the flow and determine their own path. Instill a sense of self-worth. Encourage your child to surround himself with like-minded individuals and personal goals.  Providing your child with an “out” will enable him or her to feel more confident in staying true and strong to the belief system which you are helping him/her to develop.
  • Getting through school. If you haven’t heard it already, your child may complain he or she didn’t get any classes with their friends. This could be bad luck or due to the point made earlier regarding aptitude. Middle school students are separated according to reading or math levels. And many now offer AP or honors classes. Remind your child that socializing is for lunch and after school. While it’s reassuring to have a bestie in class with you, it can also become a distraction. The focus should be on the work and not so much who is or isn’t in class with them. Another source of frustration for middle schoolers is learning to handle more information from teachers. Although they aren’t in high school getting ready for college or a trade, homework and expectations increase. This might be the first time (or year) that your student is dealing with multiple book reports, projects, or tests. And it can be a challenge. You know your child best, and a great resource for parents is the teacher leading the class. If you notice bad grades and a lack of focus or confusion in any subject, take action. Schedule time with the teacher to make sure your child’s struggles are identified. It could be anything from moving his or her desk from a chatty student to taking better notes. Or maybe your child has a learning disability. If that is the case, additional support and study groups can help.
  • Preparing for high school. It’s on the horizon. Although it may not cross your mind, your child is hearing all about the thrills and pitfalls of high school. Counselors begin talking to students about course selection and attempt to mentally prepare them for the rigors of high school classes. Teachers no longer hold hands or give second chances to make up a grade. So your child may begin to feel frustrated before high school even starts. Remind them nobody is supposed to have it all figured out. Nor should they expect perfection just because they are moving on to another school. Expectations change and may be higher, but with the proper planning and conversations, your student can focus on doing his or her best without the added pressure of maintaining honor roll or joining every club and activity. Here, too, it’s all about balance. It is important to give your child an option.

High School (Ages 15-18)

Once kids are well into their teens, frustration may look very different. If you can recognize it at all. For many, teens are living busy lives. If something bothers them, they likely retreat inward and maintain silence. Or they may simply stop trying to achieve their goal rather than asking for help or acknowledging what’s happening. The shift is a catch-22. On one hand, you’re dealing with an individual whose maturity is a far cry from elementary school. They’ve learned a few things along the way and are nearing adulthood. If you didn’t have open communication or a close relationship when they were younger, it’s even more difficult to identify the problems now. However, this also is a population that struggles with depression, anxiety, and suicide more than any other age group. So, you don’t want to do anything or assuming everything is OK simply because grades may be steady and rules are being followed.

Here again, everything from relationships to preparing for one’s future and even asserting more independence is at hand, but on a different level. At this stage in your child’s life, the best thing you can do is continue to talk and guide him or her through difficult times. Your expectations and rules have been made clear. In the case of simply encountering frustration about the next steps in life or relationships, offering the following tips may be the best way to support your child.

  • Exhale. Sometimes a little space and perspective allow us to see the bigger picture and take a few deep breaths. When frustration first arises, rather than forging ahead, step back from the source of frustration. Maybe your teen needs to get outside and away from that textbook by taking a walk or making dinner to refocus and recharge. Often, a simple change can yield big results.
  • Acceptance. If progress or joy is no longer a part of the equation, whether your teen is struggling in school, sports, or relationships, it may not require more effort. Perhaps it’s time to change goals or perspective. You may see potential in your child’s athleticism or intelligence, but if the fire is gone, it’s time to explore another talent or interest. This holds true in walking away from a toxic boyfriend or girlfriend, too, which can help empower your teen and push him or her toward success. Accepting reality isn’t the same as giving up. Once it’s been determined all that could be done has been done and frustration remains, acceptance is freedom. Sometimes parents’ goals and personal desires create frustration in their children unnecessarily. In this instance, it’s the parents who may need a reality check so that their child can still experience personal success and get something out of the time devoted to what interests him or her.
  • Support. Sometimes when our older teens are frustrated they feel very alone, especially if they purposely avoid you. Let your child know that you’re on his side even if you can’t solve their problems or know the answers. They need to hear that you love him no matter what – even if he disappoints or she made mistakes. A simple conversation may be just what he needs to break through a layer of frustration and negatively.
  • Acknowledge. Your teenage years may be decades in the past. But you can let your child know that you remember the struggles and more importantly, can see things are difficult for them right now. Many people share similar problems and frustrations. Help troubleshoot the strategies to help them improve or accept the situation.
  • Persistence. In working on weaknesses and improving upon strengths, success is possible. When she’s struggling, help her draw on or develop strategies to manage weaknesses. That also means defining the term “weakness.” Rather than giving up too soon out of frustration, perhaps a new outlook is needed. For example, she may not have been accepted to her first or second choice college. But after weighing the pros and cons of those schools and others she may not have considered, and applying to alternate universities, persistence provides options and ultimately, success.
  • Plan. Preparation is the key to success and works to diminish frustration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of going to college or immediately starting a job after graduation. Career counselors, mentors, and other resources are out there for your teen to feel ready for the next steps in life.

If you or your child need extra support in navigating the frustrations life may bring, schedule an appointment with one of our experts at the PinnacleHealth Psychological Associates at UPMC Pinnacle by calling 717-231-8360.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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