This concept is so central to Good Enough Parenting that we wanted to give it its own chapter. As we said, the basic premise of Good Enough Parenting is that as parents we must adequately meet the core emotional needs of our children. If we do not, they will be at risk of facing frustrative and traumatic experiences, or becoming exasperated, which will lead to the development of active schemas or lifetraps.
When we speak about exasperation and frustration, we mean the frustration that comes as a result of not having core emotional needs met, not the frustration that happens in life from time to time. All children will face little frustrations in different shapes and forms throughout life—losing a favorite toy, not winning in a sport, being disappointed by a friend, not receiving the gifts they had their heart set on, even getting upset by the occasional mistakes we make as parents. These kinds of frustrations are normal; if children never experience frustration, that causes a different kind of exasperation, because they will become entitled! (We digress!)
Normal frustration in life is different than a lifestyle of repeated frustration, trauma, and exasperation that takes place when core emotional needs are not met, This state of repeated exasperation eventually shapes a child’s worldview and affects his way of thinking. The child’s thoughts about himself and others become distorted, he develops harm-causing lifetraps, and his coping style gets more pronounced.
Unintentional and Subtle
We know most parents love their children and want to be the best parents they can be. They are not trying to deprive their children of anything; the mistakes they make are usually unintentional and subtle. While some harmful wrong-doings by parents are overt and obvious, such as yelling in anger, name-calling, and physical violence, there are many more times when the mistakes are just not that straightforward. Even when they stem from well-meaning intentions, if they are a regular part of a family’s lifestyle, there will be consequences.
We will illustrate how parents may be unconsciously and subtly (or not so subtly) exasperating their children with the following vignettes: (from here we will use the term “exasperation interaction” interchangeably with the idea of “frustrative and traumatic experiences”.)
One-year-old Alan is not around his parents much during the day. His mother’s house cleaner brings him to a day care center in the morning, leaves him at his grandparents’ house in the afternoon, and feeds him his dinner in the early evening. Alan’s parents work, and come home late because of the demanding nature of their jobs. It is not unusual for Alan to cry and be grumpy and distracted.
What is the underlying reason? Alan is experiencing a lifestyle of not having his core emotional need for Connection and Acceptance adequately met. If Alan were experiencing physical discomfort such as an earache or a sore throat, he would be difficult to soothe until someone tended to that need. The same goes for emotional needs—it’s just that they are not as apparent. Whenever Alan reacts from the deprivation of connection, his parents put it down to something else, such as him being difficult, hungry, thirsty, sleepy, or catching a cold, not realizing that Alan is mostly reacting from not having a need met.
Children do not have the words to express these needs but will react when there is deprivation nonetheless. How can we expect children to make known these emotional needs when even adults are largely ignorant? If Alan’s parents were to be asked, they would probably say that they have to focus on their careers because they want their child to be taken care of financially. These are good and well-meaning parents and the harm they are causing is unintentional and subtle; this lifestyle prevents them from meeting their son’s core emotional needs. The consequences of not doing so can be grave,especially to children with very sensitive temperaments.
Sarah’s mother, a highly-controlling woman, decides what clothes her five-year-old daughter should wear, what books she should read, and when and where she will play with her friends, without giving Sarah any choice in the matter. Sarah is not allowed to play in others’ homes or have sleepovers like her other friends. Her mother dictates all matters and this has become very much a part of her lifestyle. Sarah depends on her mother for everything. She is not comfortable being on her own and making choices that others her age are making. She gets frustrated easily, cries and becomes angry, so her mother disciplines her for not being good-mannered, which then frustrates her even more. Sarah becomes angry because her core emotional need for Healthy Autonomy and Performance is not being adequately met. Her mother is completely oblivious to this and focuses on Sarah’s outward behavior. She thinks her highly-controlling nature will help steer her daughter in the right direction while in reality, Sarah’s frustration will continue and she will develop an unhealthy way of coping. If Sarah’s mother were to be asked why she is so controlling of her daughter, she probably would say that she is trying to be thorough. It could be that Sarah’s dependence makes her feel useful as a mother—she certainly would not want to cause harm to her daughter, but is doing so, subtly and unintentionally.
Simon, a first grader, is energetic, highly curious, and wants to explore every new object he comes across. His parents are around but they do not know how to set proper limits to his behavior. At school, Simon does not obey rules and is bossy around other children. When he does not get his way, he displays anger by hitting. His aggressive behavior has caused him to be disliked by many and as a result he does not have many friends. Adults often stare disapprovingly when he misbehaves in public places. As he realizes that he is not well-liked, he will develop a poor sense of self, which will cause frustration to develop, and over time, this may cause him to become more aggressive. If his parents continue to fail in providing adequate guidance and do not expect him to obey some Reasonable Limits, his frustration will continue as others give signals that he is not pleasant to be around. He will also feel frustrated at the lack of guidance from his parents. If we were to ask the parents why they are not more involved, they would chalk it up to not wanting to be too controlling or maybe just being too busy: “He’ll shape up soon enough”—an example of how overly permissive parenting yields costly results.
Maria is only four years old and is already being sent to a kindergarten that prepares children to excel in math and science. Her mother, who directs her to do extra work so that she can score well in these subjects, often interrupts Maria’s playtime. She also limits her daughter’s time with friends, and constantly nags Maria about doing better at school. Maria gets frustrated, though she does not know the word for that feeling. She looks unhappy and sullen much of the time. She daydreams a lot and does not concentrate on her schoolwork, which is already excessive. Her mother puts this down to laziness and lack of focus. Her demands are extreme—she is definitely not meeting the core emotional need for Realistic Expectations. Maria feels exasperated and frustrated most of the time. She is rude to her mother and has started angrily lashing out at her friends in kindergarten. Her mother feels that she is a good Mom, looking out for her daughter. Again, the mother would probably say that her expectations are for Maria’s own good, but she has little idea of the unintentional harm and exasperation that she had caused her daughter to experience through her repeated unrealistic expectations.
Ben is a fourteen-year old boy who finds it difficult to fit in. He is not into sports like the other boys his age. He feels ashamed of his acne, his oily hair, and his looks in general. Ben avoids interacting with other boys and often feels left out. He spends most of his time in his room alone. His parents are pleased with this behavior since they feel that he is a “good boy” who does not mix with the “wrong” crowd. Further, since he is good student, they are proud of his progress at school and boast about him incessantly, thinking that will build up his self-esteem, but it makes him feel guilty instead. Ben appears to get along well with others, but does not actually connect well and feels lonely. He often goes to bed crying, longing to have a best friend. He does not feel like he fits in anywhere. As his loneliness increases, he starts to surf the web to soothe his pain, and becomes addicted to Internet pornography. His parents are completely unaware—all they seem to be concerned with is how well he is doing at school. Ben’s loneliness is causing him frustration. He feels lousy about himself and knows deep down that he is headed in the wrong direction. He resents his parents for not understanding his challenges, but he is also afraid to tell them. His parents continue to be oblivious to his needs. They have no idea what he is feeling. They mean absolutely no harm, but as unintentional as it is, harm is still being caused. Imagine if Ben were part of a functional community, where he felt accepted, loved, guided and challenged? His feelings of loneliness might be reduced, at least to a degree. His close relationships with peers and adult friends might help him deal with his porn addiction. If his parents could have helped Ben to have his need for Spiritual Values and Community met, it could have made such a difference.
Back to exasperation—since it usually takes place subtly and unintentionally, parents must examine if something in their lifestyle might be accidentally sabotaging their own parenting. Sometimes this happens when moms and dads imitate behaviors from their own parents that they observed and experienced growing up. Sometimes it can be the exact opposite—an overreaction to what they experienced. And sometimes it stems from fear of what their children may become if they keep heading in a certain direction; perhaps “Junior” reminds them of Uncle Ned, the bankrupt womanizer who could not hold a job. It could even be caving in to parental peer-pressure, worrying about what other parents might be thinking. Or it can occur because of a reaction to something they have read or heard in the media.
Moral, Conventional, Personal, Prudential
We cannot end this introduction to exasperation interactions without pointing out that many of the issues about which parents and children argue are matters of opinion and preference. Parents who refuse to be dragged into “disputable matters” and focus their energies on truly important issues have a greater chance of helping their children to be morally and emotionally healthy and avoiding exasperation interactions.
We believe that the research of Dr. Larry Nucci,1 (a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert in children’s social and moral development) sheds light on what kind of issues should carry more weight than others. He put different ways of looking at right and wrong into “domains”, (not to be confused with Schema Domains) and found that all cultures have common ideas of “right and wrong”, encompassing concepts such as fairness, justice, and honesty. According to Nucci, a five-year-old boy, regardless of where he is raised, knows it is never right to hit a smaller child or to keep all the candy for himself. He calls this the Moral Domain, and says it is pretty much the same across the world, whether you are talking about Singapore, South Africa or Scandinavia.
The Conventional Domain deals with issues that tend to be arbitrary, it exists through the social agreement of people who are part of a social system. For example, in some cultures it is perfectly fine to address another person by their given name, but in other cultures this would seem very informal, and in some places, downright rude. Burping aloud at the table is condemned in some places but seen as a compliment to the chef in others. A third domain he labels as the Personal Domain, which deals with matters of privacy and personal preference, such as a person’s style of dress or hairstyle. As a child grows this domain will also increase with their autonomy. Finally, there is the Prudential Domain involving safety and well-being and pertaining to rules associated with things like the consumption of alcohol, using drugs, smoking and driving.
Of all the above domains, which should be the main focus—Moral, Conventional, Personal or Prudential? When discipline is being administered, should one domain take precedence over another? Disciplining and training children about issues within the Moral Domain, which are truly about right and wrong, is central to their development. However, when parents argue with and discipline their children for “offenses” within the conventional and personal domains, children, especially adolescents, will often infer hypocrisy and rebel. As parents fight with their children about the arbitrary and personal choice issues that are not truly a matter of right and wrong, their children will become exasperated and will experience frustration of their core emotional needs.
With this understanding, as parents we will be able to know where our focus primarily should be, when we should make something a big deal, when it is acceptable to be indignant—and over what issues.
Important Qualifier: Repeated frustrative and traumatic experiences are not the same as occasional mistakes by parents who generally do a great job meeting these core emotional needs. It has been said that having children changes parents. Most of us, if we persevere and continue to grow as individuals, and are willing to be humble and learn, will change for the better. However, during this journey we will all make mistakes, whether it is losing our cool, being forgetful, getting frustrated, and perhaps even at times being overly intrusive, demanding, or permissive. Such mistakes can be repaired easily and not repeated frequently if we gain awareness through feedback from our spouse and from our children. What we are warning against are the kind of harmful dynamics that become a part of the normal interactions that make up a family’s lifestyle and culture. These repeated frustrative and traumatic experiences facilitate the development of harm-causing lifetraps and unhealthy coping styles.