By Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW

Every parent has grappled with the largeness of frustration.

Whether it manifests in tantrums, anger, or self-worth issues in your child, it is a constant balancing act to know what to do in the face of such an enormous emotional surge. Step back and let it happen, guide through the resistance, or try to make everything better? Add your own frustration to the situation, and you have a recipe for a downward spiral to meltdown-land for all involved. The key to moving through frustration is to understand where it comes from and what it can teach us.

Frustration comes from wanting something and feeling that you can’t have it or that you are doing whatever you can but still not achieving what you want. Emotions often come in big bursts for kids, who are new at feeling their feelings and haven’t yet learned emotional regulation. In other words, they haven’t developed how to stay grounded and balanced as they experience a surge of energy moving through them. One of kids’ developmental tasks is to explore their sense of power: how much they have and don’t have and what they can control versus what they can’t. When young kids, in particular, experience a big surge of feeling powerful, because of their immaturity, they often don’t realize that there are limits to that power. So they react strongly when the limit comes, whether because they hit a roadblock in their creative exploration or because an adult imposes it.

How to respond?

It’s ironic how frustrating it can be to deal with frustration! Parents often feel incredulous at the level of frustration a child can feel over something seemingly trivial, such as being told that he can’t empty all the sugar packets while you’re waiting for food at a restaurant. It’s easy for us to forget, though, that the world is still largely brand new for kids—they want to explore everything, and the idea that they can’t or that it isn’t the time or place or the appropriate way to explore feels like a huge wet blanket on their curiosity.

When kids realize they’ve pushed your buttons, they feel powerful, which is so fascinating to them that they want to repeat the behavior over and over.

Remembering your child’s perspective is the first step—even when it seems like he’s just trying to push your buttons, that’s usually only true if he’s gotten a rise out of you by doing the behavior he’s doing, which is fascinating to him because of the surge of powerfulness he feels when you react. An interesting thing about emotional states is how contagious they can seem, so watch your temptation to jump right into the tangles of frustration with him by reacting in more frustration, as you’ll just continue to escalate each other. The good news is that calm can be “contagious” too. When you take a deep breath and center yourself in the face of your child’s frustration, communicating clearly without losing your cool, you can literally share that calm with him and invite him into it. Frustration can never last in an environment of calm.

When you have some quiet time, teach him how to take big, deep belly breaths and help him explore what it feels like when he’s frustrated (tense muscles, negative thoughts) so he learns to recognize its onset. If he’s old enough, teach him that when he’s feeling frustrated, he can imagine a red light telling him to STOP what he’s doing and calm down by taking a few deep breaths or taking a break. When he’s feeling calmer, he can imagine a green light telling him it’s ok to GO again.

Learning how to tolerate big feelings leads to emotional mastery.

Frustration can cause tantrums, but learning how to tolerate big feelings is what leads to emotional mastery. Tantrums are the effects of overloaded neural and biological systems. Stress and frustration have escalated to such a level that your child’s emotions need to explode in order for him to regulate again. This ties back to kids being new at feeling their feelings—because he’s inexperienced, your child may go from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye.

Usually, if you convey to your child that you are bigger than his big feelings, the storm will pass in a few minutes. Stay present and as calm as you can (yep, that feels superhuman at times!) and acknowledge what he’s feeling without trying to assert your point of view or distract him. Try something like, “You really wish we could stay at the park all afternoon.” Then zip it! Avoid the temptation to add “but we really need to get home.” The “but” undoes all of the empathy you just offered. Once you’ve validated his emotions—which almost always has a calming effect even though it seems like you’re fueling the fire because you’re simply agreeing with his feelings—he’ll feel seen and heard and will start to relax. Once you feel that shift, you can gently nudge him toward the next steps, such as getting his coat and saying goodbye to playmates.

By learning to tolerate even these big surges of emotion and seeing that these big feelings don’t threaten you, your child begins to learn emotional self-mastery and will be less and less likely to explode in frustration and more and more able to simply tolerate feeling it, then allowing it to pass.

Some frustration is actually good for a child—it motivates him to discover something new.

Frustration creates the motivation to learn and discover something new. Cars were invented because it was frustrating for it to take so long to get from A to B. Kids learn to walk because they’re frustrated by being down on the ground, unable to see and experience as much of the world as they’d like. So allowing some frustration within your child’s compass can actually help him grow and develop. The key is knowing what your child’s compass is and respecting it, as everyone’s tolerance for frustration is different. Feeling some frustration can motivate a child, whereas too much can overload his nervous system and trigger a meltdown. If what your child is going for seems within reach, let him be—or offer gentle encouragement—and see what happens. If he’s melting down, it’s time to take a break and help him center himself.

Tolerating your child’s frustration helps you gain more emotional mastery, too.

Most parents feel uncomfortable allowing their child to struggle, often because it brings up their own childhood memories of either struggling and not feeling supported or not having had much opportunity to struggle and accept it as a natural part of life. Either way, your child’s struggle and frustration in the here and now are offering you a golden opportunity to learn how to tolerate and manage your own frustration, too. The tools that work well for him—taking a few deep breaths, counting to ten, taking a break, and changing the scenery—will work just as well for you! As a bonus, when you model getting frustrated and then calming yourself, you help teach your child how to do the same.

Jill Spivack and Jennifer Waldburger have been featured in a variety of media, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Good Morning America, The Today Show, CBS Evening News, Inside Edition, WebMD, Parenting, and Variety. They are the curriculum consultants to Pajanimals, a joint production with the Jim Henson Company and PBS Sprout. They are also the co-creators of award-winning book and DVD, The Sleepeasy Solution. For more, please visit their website, Facebook, and Twitter

*Photo by Malabooboo.