Frustration and Rage

Just as I’m about the pour a splash of vanilla into the shake I’m making for my son, I hear two blood-curdling screams followed by the sight of my older son, Everest, tearing around the corner with his 3 1/2 year old brother, who has transformed into the Tazmanian devil, close behind. Everest dashes behind my back to create a blockade between him and Asher. Asher runs full-force toward his brother, but finds himself in my arms instead.

I carry him to the couch and hold him tightly. Contained in my arms and against the warmth of my skin, the flailing in his body quickly stops, but he continues to scream at the top of his lungs for several minutes. I put my face close to his to let him know that I’m here and to send the silent message that it’s okay to scream. Everest watches from the safe distance of the hallway, still rattled by the intensity of his brother’s rage directed at him. When the frustration has passed through him, Asher is quiet. I hold him and kiss him. He looks up at me with his big, brown eyes, his cheeks wet with tears, and says, “I had to tear the paper out of my notebook. I needed a bookmark.”

“I know, sweetheart. And that was so frustrating when Everest didn’t understand.”

Silence.

“And you ran after him because you were so angry and frustrated.”

Silence. But I know the words are going in. I know how important it is to re-tell the story so that he can begin to process it and make sense of his big feelings.

“And it’s okay to feel angry and frustrated, but when you chase Everest he feels very scared. When you’re frustrated, instead of chasing Everest, you can scream and hit the pillows, or run around the house. Or we can practice what we learned in Steps and Stones.”

Silence, but he’s listening to every word. I know from raising Everest that it will take hundreds of conversations (literally) before the words sink in and change happens. That means hundreds of times of him behaving in ways that aren’t loving to others or himself before he can assimilate the message and make a different choice.

From my work with clients and reading parenting books in Everest’s early years, I know that the dominant parenting message supports of a punitive model of discipline. Culturally we support tools like “time outs” and “logical consequences” as a way to teach “good” and “bad” behavior. While I do believe that it’s possible to apply these techniques in a way that doesn’t negatively affect a child, more often than not the message that is communicated is, “Big feeling are bad. If you’re going to scream, go to your room. If you hit Charlie, you need a time out.” These techniques may work in the short run, and certainly achieve faster results than what I’ve described above, but they typically leave unseen scars and transmit unhealthy messages about big feelings.

We also sanction distraction techniques, so when a child is crying loudly an adult walks over with a toy or video game to get him to stop. Again, distraction certainly has its place in parenting, but usually the overarching message is, “Your big feelings are not okay.” Why do we feel a need to stop a child from crying loudly?

From my work with clients, it’s clear that the single most common cause of anxiety is learning early in life that big feelings are unmanageable and that one’s self-worth is dependent on “good” behavior. Obviously, from a parents’ perspective, good behavior is defined as quiet, calm, and reasonable. Thus is born the “good boy” or “good girl” syndrome where a child’s true nature is stuffed away deep inside because he or she learns that grown ups are uncomfortable with big feelings and that if she wants their approval, she has to be good in order to get it. And, of course, parents are uncomfortable with big feelings when they haven’t done the work necessary to heal from the unhealthy messages absorbed from their childhood about their own feelings.

The entire interaction with Asher lasted less than five minutes. It doesn’t take a long time in the moment to teach kids that they can handle big feelings and that loud feelings like frustration and anger are okay, but it is dependent on a relationship of trust, and repetition, patience, and taking the long view are key. When Asher cried as a baby in the middle of the night, I held him through it. When he screamed in the car as a two month old, I did my best to soothe him, and often pulled over to nurse him or comfort him in other ways. When he throws everything off the coffee table in frustration because he can’t fit two Lego pieces together, I gather him up, hold him close, and let him know that his frustration is okay. When the storm passes, we talk about other, less destructive, ways to handle frustration. Both of my boys also learn about big feelings by watching how I handle the other one. As I sat with Asher on my lap, Everest witnessed the entire interaction. And when it was over, Asher walked over to his big brother and said he was sorry – an authentic expression that wasn’t motivated by me saying, “Now, say you’re sorry”. Then they ran off to continue their game.

And where was I? Ah, yes, the splash of vanilla…

***

Three notes:

1. There are certainly times when my exhaustion collides with his frustration and I lose my patience. At these times, I make sure of two things: 1. That I apologize for snapping at him and 2. That I don’t make it his responsibility that I snapped at him. In other words, it’s easy to say, “I’m sorry I snapped at you but if you weren’t so loud or whiny, I wouldn’t lose my patience,” but my impatience is 100% my responsibility and nobody can “make” me lose it. Parenting isn’t about responding “perfectly” every time (impossible), but it is about role-modeling responsible behavior and being honest about our humanity. So if I can’t do what I described in the blog post, I can model for him what accountability looks like, which is equally as important. A friend once shared with me something her therapist said to her which has always stuck with me: “Relationships aren’t about being perfect. You’re going to lose it with your partner or with your kids. What matters is the repair.”

2. Asher is my second child, and I have infinitely more tolerance for his big feelings than I did with Everest. Even though I had a lot of space for my own big feelings when I became a parent, nothing could have prepared me for how helpless I felt around Everest’s big feelings. As a highly sensitive child, he struggled in many areas where easy-going babies didn’t: at the grocery store, around new people, at bedtime and throughout the night. He struggled with transitions and he struggled with loud noises. (He no longer struggles in any of those areas.) It took me two years to realize that he was a highly sensitive child, and another several years before I developed ways to help him handle his big feelings. I could look back at some of my parenting choices in his earlier years and fall prey to a critical voice that says, “You screwed up”. Or I could choose to view myself through a compassionate lens that says, “I did the best I could. It’s only about learning.” I choose the latter. 

3. There are certainly times when distraction is not only understandable, but necessary. When Asher’s frustration is the result of exhaustion or a negative reaction to food, I don’t think there’s anything beneficial in supporting his emotional meltdowns. Distracting with music, play and humor, or books helps him break out of his negative cycle and restore his equilibrium. Of course, it’s not always easy to discern the source of the frustration, and this is where parenting becomes an art, not a science. You do the best you can, knowing that there are no perfect answers and certainly no perfect parents.

21 comments to Frustration and Rage

  • Sarah

    This is so refreshing (I think “refreshing” is one of the top words I’d use to describe your blog in general:). One of the most helpful ideas in my own emotional healing has been to realize that “any feeling is ok (and often the right feeling for the situation), but what I do with the feeling can be healthy or unhelpful. It’s so cool to see that modeled, as my family definitely had a rewards/punishment mentality, as well as little tolerance for the “negative” feelings of anger, sadness and fear. Sometimes I feel at a loss when thinking about my future kids. I feel like all I’d get from my family is “plunk that kid in time-out…he needs to know who’s in charge…he’ll behave better next time.” My parents provided a great model for me in areas of responsibility and I never felt unsafe, but in the area of big emotions, things were just a tangled mess. It’s good to know that parenting a child’s big emotions is possible. Thanks for this!

    • You’re so welcome, Sarah. I, too, find that having other ways of being with big feelings role-modeled is extremely helpful. I’ve learned more from my amazing mama-friends than I have from any book!

  • Marisa

    Amazing timing. Just last night I was having a conversation about the overwhelm that seems to have a choke hold on me in certain, anxiety producing situations. I mentioned that in a recent episode I tried to reel myself back in, to surrender to the panic and feel confident in my ability to manage the tidal wave of terror, but it just didn’t happen for me. That’s OK, but I would like to be able to manage my reactions better. The conversation continued and what came out of it was the need to implement a daily practice for myself, one that reaffirms that these feelings may bubble up, but that I am capable with dealing with any and all of them; a practice that instill faith in myself for handling such big and powerful feelings; a practice that is patient and kind and loving. It’s hard to implement this sort of thinking and reactivity at any age, but to witness this practice as a child, and to be the beneficiary of a parent who is willing to model the behavior is a real gift. Thanks for reaffirming what I know I need to do for myself and for the little girl inside me.

    • “the need to implement a daily practice for myself, one that reaffirms that these feelings may bubble up, but that I am capable with dealing with any and all of them; a practice that instill faith in myself for handling such big and powerful feelings; a practice that is patient and kind and loving.”

      YES, Marisa! We would have a different world if everyone committed to this practice!

  • Betsy (blm5126)

    I think it’s also really important, as you point out, that we all have feelings of frustration and rage, but that doesn’t mean we base decisions on them or take them as an Absolute Truth for how we feel about the situation. I think that’s one of the bigger concerns for the conscious bride that is anxious- how do we manage the frustration, rage, anger, disappointment, despair, doubt without letting it consume us and make our decisions for us? Your work provides an answer for that: you feel it, acknowledge it, give it space, see what is underneath. But you don’t let that fear, anger, rage, etc make your decisions for you.

    That’s the hardest (and best) lesson we learn here. As I have said a thousand times before but it will never be enough, thank you for your work!

  • Clara

    I just loved this post, Sheryl, and also the excerpt from Pema Chodron’s “Comfortable with Uncertainty”. Thank you! I have a question: how do we appropriately respond to the ‘big feelings’ (and their unhelpful expressions)in adults – including our partners? Surely it’s not our role to ‘re-parent’ our adult partners, but at the same time we don’t want to reinforce the message that ‘you big feelings are not okay’. It would be wonderful if all adults would, as Betsy says, allow their big feelings but not live from them – but not all adults have found their way to this wisdom, or are willing to make this journey that the readers of your blog are making. I do think some expressions of ‘big feelings’ in adults are frankly not okay (violence being an obvious and extreme example). How do we facilitate the adults in our lives to allow their big feelings in a healthy way?

    • It certainly is NOT our role to re-parent our partners. As adults, we set a loving boundary or remove ourselves from a situation where someone is acting out their frustration or rage and then bring deep compassion to ourselves for the loneliness or sadness or hurt that it triggers.

      • Sarah

        If it’s no trouble, I have a question in this vein too, Sheryl: What IS a healthy way to respond to partners in regard to big feelings? I can see where if someone were violent, agressive or controlling that removing yourself is exactly what’s healthy. I guess I’m thinking of myself here…there’s a lot I didn’t get in regard to processing my negative feelings while growing up, and things often “boil over” for me emotionally when either I or my husband feel negative things. I do try and tell myself things like “It’s ok to feel this, you can handle this, just sit with this for now,” and not get mired in my own critical thoughts. I try not to expect that my husband will in any way “parent” me…but that can be hard when I’m feeling anxious/fearful/etc. Being left alone would be upsetting, though I have learned that that’s ok too, if that’s what’s needed. Just wondering your thoughts on what it looks like to handle big feelings as an adult, when you didn’t learn it as a child.

        • It’s okay to ask for what you need from your partner (i.e. I need to be held right now, I need you to listen) as long as you’re own loving adult is present and you’re not expecting your partner to be your parent. Does that make sense?

  • Clara

    PS – Can you recommend a book on parenting highly sensitive children? I believe I have a highly sensitive 3 year old niece…

  • Jessica Walker

    What a great post. This is so essential for me right now. My daughter is a little over two years old, and is starting to really feel those big feelings. I was unprepared for this! I feel like I will be able to make more conscious decisions about handling these situations now. Love this blog, so glad I found it.

  • Elizabeth Rodriguez

    What a wonderful validation of the way I handle my son. He too is very sensitive and when he was very young he also was very reactive when he felt out of control. There were many times when he would out of frustration scream and yell and I would just hold him and tell him that I loved him and would not leave him and we would work it out together. I can say that now as an 11 year old he still has his moments but he is able to let the big feelings pass through. He will even come to me and say Mommy I am sorry that I lost control I am just trying to get myself togther. And he does it is very gratifying to see.

  • You have my questioning myself a little bit… We have a 3yo and a 1yo in the household. The 3yo yells about things that seem minor to the rest of us. If she drips her drink on herself? She screams and cries. She calms down instantly when offered something to dry herself.

    So often when she is LOUD about being upset, I set her in my lap and talk to her about it, but I also ask her to be quiet. Sometimes its because the baby is asleep nearby. It is often because it simply hurts our ears!

    I calmly talk with my daughter about her feelings and that it is okay to be mad and be sad, but it is not okay to scream. I’m not sure how to change my approach when her screaming literally hurts my ears.

    • This is why i say that parenting is an art, not a science. You have to figure out what works for your family, which may be different than what works for us. That said, there are certainly times we ask Asher to please use a quieter voice as he’s hurting our ears!

  • ira

    What a wonderful reminder for me today. I generally follow a similar philosophy. On and off I regress to a different style because Dd6 is and always has been so strong willed, persistant, determinded. Her big feelings just last Soooo much longer. I have found tips to identify her traits, but not to help me and her through her big feelings and stubborn nature. How do I get her out of that hole she digs herself into so strongly? Dd3 is definitely different and these ways are great with her. Help?

  • hava

    I read a lot about these methods with smaller children. what about a fourteen going in fifteen year old girl who is verbally and physically abusive to adults and the other three children in the house while expressing her ‘big feelings?’ she doesn’t want to be held – yet I can see her notional expressions are all too familiar to her toddler years. mostly, these expressive times happen when she is unwilling to the responsibility for her own actions and decisions. (example- it’s bedtime on a Sunday night and she has just remembered she has a homework assignment due in class the next morning. she will take the entire house hostage with her emotional expression – screaming, yelling, hitting, door slamming – saying she hates her mother and it’s all her mothers fault that the teen didn’t get her homework done. it’s exhausting and takes hours to get through. with calm non-violent examples from both parents. )

    • I’ll be honest and say that this is outside my realm of expertise, but I know that allowing her to express her “big feelings” while being verbally and physically abusive is NOT okay. I would suggest contacting a family therapist in your area to see if you can explore the root of the issues together.