No one likes to lose. We all prefer to come out on top–especially when we’re heavily invested in a particular outcome.
If you’re a child, it may be hard to accept that you’re not going to get that second cookie or a chance to watch a third Simpsons episode. Teens may find it it tough to cope with a breakup or denied admission to the college of their choice.
And those of us who are officially “grown ups” have plenty of opportunities to work toward making peace with results we hadn’t wanted, like losing a job…or an election.
One of the ways I talk about this with parents of angry, aggressive kids is as follows. (A special thank you to Dr. Gordon Neufeld for his wonderful contributions to this model.)
We land on the Road of Frustration when our desire for something is thwarted. That road comes to a fork, at which point we have move either toward acceptance or aggression. Those are the two potentials outcomes when we are frustrated.
Moving toward aggression is easy–and commonplace. We may take our frustration out on whoever we imagine has deprived us of what we want (our parents, our employer, “the system”) or ourselves (“I’m so stupid; I should have done better…”) Most of us are familiar with this trajectory, whether in our children or within ourselves.
The model I teach for coping with frustration and loss incorporates Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief. Here is an example.
A child is told she can’t watch the third Simpson episode.
First she steps into Denial: Mom will change her mind. She usually does if I persist.
If that doesn’t yield the desired result, she moves into Anger: “I hate you, mommy! You’re so controlling! You never let me do anything fun!”
If mom is able to avoid engaging in an argument, the child may move into Bargaining: “Mommy, PLEEEAAZZZEE! If you just let me watch one more episode I promise I’ll never ask for anything again…ever!”
If mom remains what I call the Captain of the ship–steady, sturdy, compassionate, but unwavering–the child will move into Disappointment. (Kubler-Ross referred to this stage as Depression.)
The child drops all the way into her sadness and disappointment and is therefore able to move into….
…Acceptance. Because the child has felt the weight of her disappointment–perhaps crying, or feeling heavy-hearted for a bit- she is free to make peace with the situation–no extra Simpsons episode–and can move on to playing outside or chasing the puppy.
Problems happen when we engage in arguments, power struggles and negotiations when our child is in an emotional storm. There is no positive end game in these situations. In my online parenting classes we work a great deal with this model because frustration (in both children and parents) is such a serious element in parent-child conflict.
What happens when we aren’t able to help our frustrated child move through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Disappointment, and Accepance—or DABDA?
We get aggression.
This is the child/ teen/ adult who cannot accept that what they wanted isn’t going to happen. They cannot let go.
They may linger in Denial in the hopes that circumstances will bend to their will. This is especially common with individuals who believe they are to entitled to whatever they want.
Without resilience–which is only acquired through repeated experiences of living through disappointment and letting go when the universe isn’t complying with their wishes–these folks have a very difficult time believing that they can’t have their way.
They might step into Anger. This is one of the characteristics we see in Donald Trump; an outpouring of hateful, vitriolic threats and anger toward anyone and everyone he perceives as standing in the way of getting what he believes he deserves.
Or they may move into Bargaining. Here is where we see an effort to call the system “rigged”, trying to use teams of lawyers to rewrite the rules.
These phases-Denial, Anger, and Bargaining–prevent us from making peace with life as it is. While there are endless situations where we should fight for what we want, even when the odds are stacked against us, there are also times when we need to make peace with life as it is so that we can avoid staying stuck in what might have been and move forward in our lives.
It is only by feeling our sadness and disappointment–having a good cry, leaning on loved ones for comfort when faced with loss and heartbreak–that we can accept loss.
It’s called grieving.
And for those who are uncomfortable feeling any negative emotion–it may feel impossible.
This is my understanding of what has propelled Mr. Trump to threaten to challenge the results of the election. It is a classic example of of moving toward aggression and away from acceptance in the face of a loss.
There is no easy way to come to terms with losing something we wanted–whether it’s a cookie, boyfriend, or election.
I understand that many of you believe Mr. Trump was the best choice, and that the world will suffer because he did not prevail in the election. I feel for you–I really do. Presidential candidates try to be masterful at painting a picture of a better world if and only if they are elected, and Mr. Trump attempted to do just that.
But what will truly make America great is coming together rather than lingering in divisiveness. And to accomplish that, we must grieve the loss of what we wanted so that we can move forward.
I hope we can do that. I hope Mr. Trump can accept the weight of this loss so he can lead his followers away from aggression and toward acceptance so that we can join forces as one nation of good people, rather than inciting hatred and violence which serves no one.
But regardless of what he does, each of us can embody this in our own lives. And we can show our children what it looks like to feel, grieve, and accept disappointment, so that as they grow up, they become better able to release a grip on those things that they cannot have so they can move on with grace and dignity.
May we all find our way to fight the good fight when it is called for, and make peace with life as it is, when it is the wisest choice.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.