Young People with AS and HFA: Controlling Frustration

"Any tips for dealing with a 14 y.o. autistic child [high functioning] who gets frustrated over almost anything that doesn't go the way he thinks it should?! NO Patience Whatsoever!!!"

Many children, teens, and even adults with Asperger's [AS] and High Functioning Autism [HFA] are known to have a low tolerance for frustrating experiences that result in either meltdowns or shutdowns. This post is dedicated to them...

We all know what frustration is, and we've all felt it, whether as a fleeting annoyance or as full-fledged rage. Frustration is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems—problems at work, in personal relationships, and in the overall quality of life. And it can make you feel as though you're at the mercy of an unpredictable and powerful emotion.

The Nature of Frustration—

Frustration is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. Like other emotions, it is accompanied by physiological and biological changes; when you get frustrated, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of your energy hormones, adrenaline, and nor-adrenaline.

Frustration can be caused by both external and internal events. You could be frustrated at a specific person (such as a coworker or supervisor) or event (a traffic jam, a canceled flight), or your frustration could be caused by worrying or brooding about your personal problems. Memories of traumatic or enraging events can also trigger feelings of frustration.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Expressing Frustration—

The instinctive, natural way to express frustration is to respond aggressively. Frustration is a natural, adaptive response to threats; it inspires powerful, often aggressive, feelings and behaviors, which allow us to fight and to defend ourselves when we are attacked. A certain amount of frustration, therefore, is necessary to our survival.

On the other hand, we can't physically lash out at every person or object that irritates or annoys us; laws, social norms, and common sense place limits on how far our frustration can take us.

Children and adults use a variety of both conscious and unconscious processes to deal with their feelings of frustration. The three main approaches are expressing, suppressing, and calming. Expressing your feelings of frustration in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express frustration. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.

Frustration can be suppressed, and then converted or redirected. This happens when you hold in your frustration, stop thinking about it, and focus on something positive. The aim is to inhibit or suppress your frustration and convert it into more constructive behavior. The frustration in this type of response is that if it isn't allowed outward expression, your frustration can turn inward—on yourself. Frustration turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression.

Unexpressed frustration can create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of frustration, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile. Children and adults who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making cynical comments haven't learned how to constructively express their frustration. Not surprisingly, they aren't likely to have many successful relationships.

Finally, you can calm down inside. This means not just controlling your outward behavior, but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps to lower your heart rate, calm yourself down, and let the feelings subside.

Frustration Management—

The goal of frustration management is to reduce both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal that frustration causes. You can't get rid of, or avoid, the things or the people that enrage you, nor can you change them, but you can learn to control your reactions.

Some children and adults really are more "hot-headed" than others are; they get angry more easily and more intensely than the average person does. There are also those who don't show their frustration in loud spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily angered children and adults don't always curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk, or get physically ill.

Children and adults who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can't take things in stride, and they're particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.

What makes these people this way? A number of things… One cause may be genetic or physiological: There is evidence that some children are born irritable, touchy, and easily angered, and that these signs are present from a very early age. Another may be socio-cultural. Frustration is often regarded as negative; we're taught that it's all right to express anxiety, depression, or other emotions but not to express frustration. As a result, we don't learn how to handle it or channel it constructively.

Research has also found that family background plays a role. Typically, children and adults who are easily angered come from families that are disruptive, chaotic, and not skilled at emotional communications.

Strategies to Keep Frustration at Bay:


Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help calm down feelings of frustration. There are books and courses that can teach you relaxation techniques, and once you learn the techniques, you can call upon them in any situation. If you are involved in a relationship where both partners are hot-tempered, it might be a good idea for both of you to learn these techniques.

Some simple steps to try:
  • Breathe deeply, from your diaphragm; breathing from your chest won't relax you. Picture your breath coming up from your "gut."
  • Non-strenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax your muscles and make you feel much calmer.
  • Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as "relax," "take it easy." Repeat it to yourself while breathing deeply.
  • Use imagery; visualize a relaxing experience, from either your memory or your imagination.

Practice these techniques daily. Learn to use them automatically when you're in a tense situation.

Simply put, this means changing the way you think. Angry children and adults tend to curse, swear, or speak in highly colorful terms that reflect their inner thoughts. When you're angry, your thinking can become exaggerated and overly dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts with more rational ones. For instance, instead of telling yourself, "oh, it's awful, it's terrible, everything's ruined," tell yourself, "it's frustrating, and it's understandable that I'm upset about it, but it's not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow."

Be careful of words like "never" or "always" when talking about yourself or someone else. "This !&*%@ machine never works," or "you're always forgetting things" are not just inaccurate, they also serve to make you feel that your frustration is justified and that there's no way to solve the problem. They also alienate and humiliate people who might otherwise be willing to work with you on a solution.

Remind yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything; that it won't make you feel better (and may actually make you feel worse).

Logic defeats frustration, because frustration, even when it's justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that the world is "not out to get you," you're just experiencing some of the rough spots of daily life. Do this each time you feel frustration getting the best of you, and it'll help you get a more balanced perspective. Angry people tend to demand things: fairness, appreciation, agreement, willingness to do things their way. Everyone wants these things, and we are all hurt and disappointed when we don't get them, but angry children and adults demand them, and when their demands aren't met, their disappointment becomes frustration.

As part of their cognitive restructuring, angry children and adults need to become aware of their demanding nature and translate their expectations into desires. In other words, saying, "I would like" something is healthier than saying, "I demand" or "I must have" something. When you're unable to get what you want, you will experience the normal reactions—frustration, disappointment, hurt—but not frustration. Some angry children and adults use this frustration as a way to avoid feeling hurt, but that doesn't mean the hurt goes away.

Problem Solving—

Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in our lives. Not all frustration is misplaced, and often it's a healthy, natural response to these difficulties. There is also a cultural belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to our frustration to find out that this isn't always the case. The best attitude to bring to such a situation, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how you handle and face the problem.

Make a plan, and check your progress along the way. Resolve to give it your best, but also not to punish yourself if an answer doesn't come right away. If you can approach it with your best intentions and efforts and make a serious attempt to face it head-on, you will be less likely to lose patience and fall into all-or-nothing thinking, even if the problem does not get solved right away.

Better Communication—

Angry children and adults tend to jump to—and act on—conclusions. And some of those conclusions can be very inaccurate. The first thing to do if you're in a heated discussion is slow down and think through your responses. Don't say the first thing that comes into your head, but slow down and think carefully about what you want to say. At the same time, listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering.

Listen, too, to what is underlying the frustration. For instance, you like a certain amount of freedom and personal space, and your "significant other" wants more connection and closeness. If he or she starts complaining about your activities, don't retaliate by painting your partner as a jailer, a warden, or an albatross around your neck.

It's natural to get defensive when you're criticized, but don't fight back. Instead, listen to what's underlying the words: the message that this person might feel neglected and unloved. It may take a lot of patient questioning on your part, and it may require some breathing space, but don't let your frustration—or a partner's—let a discussion spin out of control. Keeping your cool can keep the situation from becoming a disastrous one.

Using Humor—

"Silly humor" can help defuse rage in a number of ways. For one thing, it can help you get a more balanced perspective. When you get angry and call someone a name or refer to them in some imaginative phrase, stop and picture what that word would literally look like. If you're at work and you think of a coworker as a "dirt-bag" or a "single-cell life form," for example, picture a large bag full of dirt (or an amoeba) sitting at your colleague's desk, talking on the phone, going to meetings. Do this whenever a name comes into your head about another person. If you can, draw a picture of what the actual thing might look like. This will take a lot of the edge off your fury; and humor can always be relied on to help un-knot a tense situation.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

The underlying message of highly angry children and adults is "things should go my way!" Angry children and adults tend to feel that they are morally right, that any blocking or changing of their plans is an unbearable indignity and that they should NOT have to suffer this way. Maybe other people do, but not them!

When you feel that urge, he suggests, picture yourself as a god or goddess, a supreme ruler, who owns the streets and stores and office space, striding alone and having your way in all situations while others defer to you. The more detail you can get into your imaginary scenes, the more chances you have to realize that maybe you are being unreasonable; you'll also realize how unimportant the things you're angry about really are. There are two cautions in using humor. First, don't try to just "laugh off" your problems; rather, use humor to help yourself face them more constructively. Second, don't give in to harsh, sarcastic humor; that's just another form of unhealthy frustration expression.

What these techniques have in common is a refusal to take yourself too seriously. Frustration is a serious emotion, but it's often accompanied by ideas that, if examined, can make you laugh.

Changing Your Environment—

Sometimes it's our immediate surroundings that give us cause for irritation and fury. Problems and responsibilities can weigh on you and make you feel angry at the "trap" you seem to have fallen into and all the people and things that form that trap.

Give yourself a break. Make sure you have some "personal time" scheduled for times of the day that you know are particularly stressful. One example is the working mother who has a standing rule that when she comes home from work, for the first 15 minutes "nobody talks to Mom unless the house is on fire." After this brief quiet time, she feels better prepared to handle demands from her kids without blowing up at them.

Some Other Tips for Easing Up on Yourself:

Timing: If you and your spouse tend to fight when you discuss things at night—perhaps you're tired, or distracted, or maybe it's just habit—try changing the times when you talk about important matters so these talks don't turn into arguments.

Avoidance: If your child's chaotic room makes you furious every time you walk by it, shut the door. Don't make yourself look at what infuriates you. Don't say, "Well, my child should clean up the room so I won't have to be angry!" That's not the point. The point is to keep yourself calm.

Finding alternatives: If your daily commute through traffic leaves you in a state of rage and frustration, give yourself a project—learn or map out a different route, one that's less congested or more scenic. Or find another alternative, such as a bus or commuter train.

Assertiveness Training—

It's true that angry children and adults need to learn to become assertive (rather than aggressive), but most books and courses on developing assertiveness are aimed at children and adults who don't feel enough frustration. These people are more passive and acquiescent than the average person; they tend to let others walk all over them. That isn't something that most angry people do. Still, these books can contain some useful tactics to use in frustrating situations.

Remember, you can't eliminate frustration—and it wouldn't be a good idea if you could. In spite of all your efforts, things will happen that will cause you frustration; and sometimes it will be justifiable frustration. Life will be filled with frustration, pain, loss, and the unpredictable actions of others. You can't change that; but you can change the way you let such events affect you. Controlling your angry responses can keep them from making you even less happy in the long run.

==> More tips and tricks to help your child on the autism spectrum to handle frustration and anger...

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism



Anonymous said...  I love your articles. Little everyday reminders of how to help and work with my son that doesn't require me to sit down and read a whole book. Not a lot of time for stuff like that these days.

Anonymous said...  My husband and I are the parents of 12 year old twins. One of our sons, Thomas, has Aspergers. (He also has ADHD). Writing is very challenging for him and his chief method of coping with the negative emotions he feels when asked to work on a writing assignment in 6th grade is avoidance. As an accomodation to reduce explosive meltdowns, Thomas is allowed to call his own time outs. He is good at anticipating a meltdown and has not had any big ones since we began using this self-management technique, but now that it is two weeks from the end of the school year with some big writing projects left to do, he says he is feeling "stressed out" and takes so many time outs that he isn't completing his school work. I think he truly is feeling stressed, but I would like him to develop more tolerance for the negative feelings he gets when faced with something that challenges him (whether the academic challenge or writing, or the social challenge of ignoring perceived joking and teasing.) The school staff work with him one-on-one as much as they can, to work through his frustrations over writing, but there are other children who need one-on-one attention too, and so Thomas ends up during some course blocks doing none or very little school work. How can I help the school transition Thomas away from the avoidance technique of "time outs," and towards the goal of sticking with his frustrating assignments and working through the negative feelings? The school wants to avoid melt-downs, almost at all costs, because these are so disruptive to other students and even destructive (Thomas had to earn back the cost of repairing a wall when he slammed a door knob through a wall, and, in a separate incident a week later, he paid to replace a door that cracked when he slammed it shut during a meltdown.) How can we and the school help Thomas develop more tolerance for the painful emotions he feels when he is faced with challenging situations?

Julianna76 said...  My son was diagnosed at age 15. He is 31 yrs old now and has 2 college degrees in the engineering field and no one will hire him. That is frustrating. My son while growing up never had meltdowns or tantrums. Instead he shut down. Middle school of course was a nightmare. I asked him if the kids teased him or bullied him and said "yeah". When I asked how he felt about it he said, "Mom, they don't feed me, clothe me or shelter me. They are nothing to me, so why should I care what they think about me. I choose to ignore them." I see sadness in his eyes sometimes because he worked very hard to get those degrees, and to the parent who said he was worried about his son's handwriting..."don't sweat it". My son is 31 and I still can't read his handwriting. I see the sadness when he gets a phone call or an email stating he didn't get the job. Voc Rehab follows up and it seems employers don't like candidates who don't look them in the eye and talk about their hobbies or their families or what they did last weekend. My son says, "That is irrelevant. I am here to discuss my qualifications for the job not my hobbies or family." He is very matter of fact and despises small talk for the sake of conversation. I will tell you all now, you think you are having a hard time now,....just wait until all those "programs" dry up in the wind the moment your Aspie child graduates from college. Oh and forget disability. My son tried twice...turned down. The state of NC says he's not blind and can walk, so therefore he is not disabled. So he lives at home, AAS and BS degrees on the wall, may have well just framed a piece of toilet paper for what's worth. Just 25K in students loans to pay back.

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