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Frustration.  It’s a feeling that combines ardent desire with the inability to transform that desire into reality. Under frustration’s unhappy influence we blame ourselves twice, first for our incompetence and then for being suckered into wanting something so difficult to attain.

While even preschoolers feel frustration, the combination of dismay and desire that is frustration hits hardest in adolescence. Little kids have hope that as they grow bigger they’ll be able to reach their heart’s desire. Teens lose hope. And without hope, teens lash out.

A new review of seven studies of video game play reveals that it’s not the violence of the games themselves that cause players to act aggressively. Instead, video game players who struggle to be successful in a game have higher levels of aggressive feelings, report more aggressive thoughts, and enact more aggressive behaviors than do players of the same game who struggle less. The level of violence portrayed in the game has no influence on player behavior. What does have influence is the level of frustration a player feels.

Now that the link between video games and frustration is clearer, it’s more obvious that violent reaction to video games fits a pattern of experience for many teens. For some kids, frustration is a constant companion, as they try and fail to achieve outcome after outcome in which they’ve invested. This investment, of time  or effort or hope, is as much psychological as material. More and more of the teen’s self-esteem becomes tied up with the pursuit of success. As frustration increases, so also does the possibility of violent release of pent-up emotion.

This is how things get smashed against the wall. This is how innocent bystanders get punched or screamed at. This is how the kid who once seemed so nice grows into a person barely under control.

What can a parent do? How can you help a teen beset by frustration learn to manage these dangerous feelings?

  1. Help your child see the tipping point. Kids often don’t notice when things have become un-fun. They plow ahead doggedly as their satisfaction evaporates and hopelessness sets in. Suggest – or insist if you have to – that your child quit what he’s doing and take a break.
  2. Support smart quitting. Many parents hate it when kids quit anything but your teen needs permission to quit and he even needs a role model of a successful quitter. Congratulate your teen when he sets something aside that’s becoming frustrating. Demonstrate this skill yourself and say so. Say, “I’m stopping this now. It’s not fun anymore.”
  3. Help your child find alternatives. This is a tricky one, since part of the problem of frustration is ardent, all-consuming commitment to an unachievable goal. Giving up on the goal can seem like selling out. But not every goal is worth our despair. Help your child value his own mental health more than the things that undermine it.
  4. Guide your child in acceptable ways of blowing off steam. When frustration threatens to become explosive is the time to channel these feelings acceptably. For some kids, a primal scream helps. For others, punching pillows, doing push-ups, or going for a run redirects emotions in acceptable ways. Frustration triggers adrenaline. Help your kid work off this hormone safely.

“Safe” is the operational word. Adult-size teens can get into trouble when their self-control runs amok. Helping your child manage his emotions will keep him and everyone around him safer.

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.