Frustration is a “root” emotion. What this means is that frustration is at the root of other behaviors that may not make sense at times. Frustration is often pushed down so far that we are not aware of the event that originally caused the frustration.


Some of us have a lifetime of frustration stuck inside. All sentient beings experience frustration on a daily basis. It’s a part of life that we need to build the capacity to deal with effectively and it begins in childhood. The difficulty is that most of us were never taught how to deal with our frustrations. There was no time nor place to address the things were not working for us. Perhaps our parents, teachers and other caregivers had never learned to cope with their own frustrations in an effective manner. Current trends in behavior management and discipline actually add frustration to an already frustrated being leading to aggression. When we don’t have a healthy outlet for our frustrations we erupt with attacking energy and aggression. Aggression can be as subtle as the internal voice that puts us down or sarcasm or ignoring, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a violent act.  I didn’t consider myself to have an aggression problem until I started learning this material and realized that in fact I did as many of us do. My aggression started at a very young age. When we have no place to release our frustration we erupt with attacking energy in many subtle and not so subtle forms. Road rage is a perfect example of the way unaddressed frustrations can manifest. By the way, the most violent period of life is the preschool years which I’ll address later. This is when we most need to support our children in developing tempered thoughts and feelings without blaming or shaming them.

First, let’s develop a language for expressing our frustrations. It’s simple…something is not working”. It’s nobody’s fault…something is just not working. When something is not working we become frustrated. The most frustrating thing we can experience as children and as adults is when our relationships don’t work. When we experience separation physically, emotionally and psychologically from those to whom we are attached. It could be a parent, spouse, friend, boss, child or sibling. You name it. When we face separation, when proximity with those who are important to us is thwarted we get frustrated. There are a myriad of ways that this can take place…rejection, abandonment, not being seeing as special, not having someone take our side, betrayal, breaking of trust, not being invited or included….the list goes on. When any of these things occurs it does not work for us. When things don’t work for us and we are frustrated there are three ways it can go.  Our first inclination will be work to change the situation, to be come a change agent of sorts, however, if this is not possible, if we cannot change the situation then we have to find another way. The second direction would be for us to accept the futility of the situation and allow ourselves to be changed on the inside. This is referred to as adaptation. A process critical to our development. Through the process of acceptance, feeling our vulnerable feelings, finding our tears we build resilience to move through our life. Lastly, if we cannot not change the situation and we don’t allow ourselves to be changed on the inside we will inevitably erupt in attacking energy and foul frustration. When this happens we see behaviors such as insults, sarcasm, ignoring, shunning, blame, violent fantasies, self-violence including suicide and violence towards others. This explains much of the behavior we see out there in society. There is so much frustration and folks are erupting with attacking energy. Our children and adolescents are erupting with aggression because they have no safe place in which to address the things that are not working in their life. The tricky thing about frustration is we can be experiencing it but not feel it. We can remain unaware of the true source of our frustration and can get caught up in making it about something it’s not preventing us from getting to the root of the frustration and moving towards adaptation.

The other thing that we see is the attribution of blame when we are frustrated. Instead of feeling frustrated and experiencing the emotions and moving through it or helping our children do this we begin to place blame. We look for whose fault it is, who needs to be held accountable or we blame ourselves and feel ashamed. Instead we need to move through the frustration…to feel the futility, cry if necessary, grieve and the grow. Something like diving into a wave, swimming through it and coming out the other side.  When we add blame we have conversations where we chase each other from Anger (it’s your fault), to Guilt (it’s my fault), to Shame (there is something wrong with me). We can never get anywhere this way and in fact it increases frustration.

The other thing we might see is something called displaced aggression. This explains what happens when we don’t feel safe expressing frustration so it gets displaced onto other people and other things. We may be frustrated at home and displace onto those at work or vice versa. Children who don’t have parents who can make them feel safe may take their frustrations out on a sibling, pet or school friend. This explains, in part, the bullying problems we see today.

So what’s the resolution? Tears and mixed feelings! Tears and the ability to feel our emotions is a critical factor in our brain development. Neuroscience is now proving what our ancestors many generations ago knew intuitively. Emotion is, as Dr. Gordon Neufeld would say, is the engine of maturation. In order to grow up we need our feelings. When we are born we only have our emotional brain. The pre-frontal cortex does not begin to have blood flow to it until around the age of 5. So before this time we are incredibly un-tempered brazen little beings. That’s why preschoolers are so eruptive and become easily frustrated. Perfectly normal by the way. As we grow and mature there should be lots of crying. The crying that happens when something doesn’t work for us releases deep tears that are full of toxins and the brain grows and so does our resiliency. Hopefully as parents we have enough patience to come alongside our children during these times without blaming or shaming them. With each frustration is the opportunity for growth if we make room for the emotion. In the process we develop mixed feelings. That means that our pre-frontal cortex begins to communicate. The two hemispheres of our brain begin to talk. We now have mixed feelings. We can feel angry yet still love the person. We can feel like lashing out but make a different choice. The world is no longer black and white but shades of grey. Without mixed feelings we are impulsive like a preschooler. We need mixed feelings to become civilized so to speak. We all know those adults who don’t have mixed feelings. I know I do. Scientists have actually taken pictures of the brain and can see that an adult without mixed feelings has the same size brain as a four year old.

So you can see how important it is to make room for frustration for yourself and for others especially our children. They cannot reach their potential otherwise.

If you are a parent or working with people or just want to be a change agent in your own family and community that working with frustrations is a great first step. Here are some tips to help you along…

  1. Develop the language of Frustration – Say, “this isn’t working”, “what’s not working for you?”, “it’s not working”. If working with children just repeat to them when they are frustrated…it’s not working, it’s not working, its’ not working. My 6 year old can now say when things aren’t working for him as a way of expressing frustration.
  2. Create safe eruption zones – Whether a grown up or child we all need a safe place in which to erupt. The frustration needs to come out otherwise it turns into aggression. Folks need to know where and to whom they can go to let it out. Children need a safe place to kick, scream, throw and cry. I have taught my son that it’s not all right to hit people or animals or to break things but it’s ok to hit the pillow, throw the stuffies and scream as loud as he can. Important to note is that for children under 7 self control has not developed fully so we need to step in to ensure they others are safe during these times. The impulsivity will lead to lots of aggression as they are so un-tempered, which is perfectly normal.
  3. Come alongside the frustration – I can come along side frustration if I look at the person or child as having a problem as opposed to being the problem. I can then be in it with them without taking it personally. Indicating that the problem is not bigger than the relationship and that we can work through what’s happening together creates safety.
  4. Lead into vulnerable territory – Where possible put frustration and tears in your voice and body language. Hold the intention for the person or child that we will get to the underlying emotions and help lead them into vulnerable territory. You know a break through has happened when the tears finally come. Children and adults alike need help with this. Remember, we can only lead where we ourselves can go.
  5. Prime good intentions – This simply means make positive assumptions about the person or child and let them know that you believe in them. I often say to my 3 year old after he’s done something that I perceive to be a bit “naughty”, “it’s just an accident”, even if it wasn’t. I will also plant the seeds of the behavior I’m seeking by saying things like “you’re a brave boy”, or “can I count on you”. Never diminish through guilt, blame and shame.
  6. Normalize aggression  – Don’t react or label or make wrong. Where you see aggression remember that there is an underlying frustration. Something is not working for this person/child. Try to gain insight as opposed to labeling, blaming or shaming.

I hope you have found this useful! If you are interested in finding out more about how handle Aggression please contact me to chat.


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