Three Ways to Handle Frustration in Family Life


“Ellie is 2-years-old and should be speaking in short sentences now. I’m starting to worry that she might have a speech impediment.”

“Parker is 10! He shouldn’t be crying when things don’t go his way. I don’t see other boys his age crying when their upset. What’s the matter with him?”

“Jon has many great qualities, but I’m tired of always being the one to take the lead. We’ve been married 19 years now, and he never seems to change! Now he has lost his job; I don’t think I can take this much longer.”

Each of the previous statements come from actual conversations I have had with individuals (names have been changed) in the recent past. I was struck by a theme that emerged from these conversations: frustration often stems from unmet expectations. This is especially true in family life where both frustration and expectations can abound.

Regardless of the stage of your family, you probably expect great things from your loved ones.

And why shouldn’t you?

All children—and people for that matter—have untapped potential. Yes, this also applies to spouses who may seem to be set in their ways, incapable of changing to meet our expectations. Perhaps most importantly, we need to apply this idea of untapped potential to the goals we have for ourselves.

When unmet expectations arise or persist, it seems almost natural to become frustrated—perhaps even deeply depressed. Keep in mind, that most of us view life through a pretty foggy lens. There is great power and peace that can come from keeping our expectations (and frustration) in proper perspective. I offer three research-based principles:

1. Reflect Regularly and Measure Accurately

In research I have conducted with college-age students, I have found that although most 18- to 25-year-olds can explain their long-term goals, their day-to-day behaviors often have very little connection to their aspirations. Unfortunately, this disconnect between daily actions and goals isn’t just a problem for college students; it can also be a problem for husbands, wives, and parents.

Why is this, you ask?

Part of the answer lies in a lack of consistent reflection and evaluation of how we’re doing at meeting our goals. For example, how often have you reflected on whether bribing or threatening your child when he pitches a fit in the grocery store is consistent with your goal for him to learn self-control?

While reflecting is important, we also must use an accurate yardstick to measure our progress. I believe this is another reason why there can exist a mismatch between our everyday actions and our goals or expectations. Quick behavior-modification strategies—such as rewards and punishments—usually work in the present but rarely in the long run. And most of the long-term goals we have in our families pertain to character, not simply behavior!

One parenting guru summarized it this way:

The good news is that when parents do manage to keep their broader objectives in view—indeed, when they focus on anything more than just getting their kids [or spouse] to obey—they tend to use better [skills in their family relationships] and they get better results.

2. Change How You See First

This principle has transformed me as a husband and father. I believe that every family has at least one—if not multiple—children that are tailor-made to test your every weakness. In other words, your child (weaknesses and all) will maximize growth out of both of you. But seeing this requires changing your sight. When frustration mounts and you can only see someone’s weaknesses, you have become blinded.

Eventually we may create a vicious cycle with our loved ones. Allow me to illustrate:

You’ve spoken to your wife about her social media addiction for the umpteenth time, and tonight she spends more time on her phone than talking to you. This only gives you more fuel to see her as flawed and incapable of changing. You then give her the “silent treatment” to teach her a lesson, which only drives a bigger wedge between the two of you. Your wife, feeling rejected, continues to live down to your expectations by using more social media to self-medicate. Then despair sets in . . . for the both of you.

If we want to overcome our frustration, we must see people beyond their actions. Behavior doesn’t define us, our kids, or our spouse. So stop relying on external indicators to define who they are!

3. You’re Not Done Yet, and Neither are They

A mother recently told me that she worried her son would become a “gamer” even though she and her husband regulated her 12-year-old son’s video game playing time. Her fear is a valid one, and I wish more parents were concerned about that problem. However, fear-based parenting doesn’t help us make rational or helpful decisions. Instead of letting our fears get the best of us, we can instead choose to see the potential in those around us. We can have hope for their future!

All people have unknown potential; however, we don’t reach it in a few weeks or even a few years! We progress, but the end product isn’t here yet. You, your spouse, and your children are not finished products. Everyone learns and develops at a different pace. As desperate as you are to see change in yourself or others, you can’t force or rush change — you can only guide it. A wise man once said stated:

We need to bear in mind that people can change. They can put behind them bad habits. We have the responsibility to look at our [family members] this way. Again, we have the responsibility to see individuals not as they are but rather as they can become. I would plead with you to think of them in this way.

Don’t give up hope if frustration and despair are mounting because of unmet expectations. Seeing your loved ones clearly takes reflection, patience, teaching, and love.

It is possible! Your family’s peace and happiness depend on it.


Please help us strengthen families by sharing this article with your friends and family! Likewise, to see more of Dr. Tim’s articles (as well as articles by Dr. Rob), please also check out the rest of our blog and our Facebook page.