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Misplaced Frustration

We’ve all done it: We’ve all unjustly taken our anger against one person out on another. The question is, what do we do about it?
By Ron L. Deal

Daniel and his wife of two years, Sonja, each brought two children into their marriage. Sonja pointed out to Daniel that each time his ex-wife disappointed his oldest daughter, Cassandra, she would take out her frustration on Sonja and her children. “When my ex says she will pick up the kids at 5 p.m. but doesn’t show until 6:30, Cassandra gets upset. Then she gets defiant, mouths off to my wife, and picks fights with her stepsisters. I’ve asked my ex-wife to keep her promises—and hopefully she will start doing so—but what can I do to help Cassandra not misplace her frustrations?”

And then, even before I could speak, Daniel had an epiphany.

“Oh my,” he said. “I do this, too.”

He thought for a moment and continued. “My wife’s ex-husband is not paying child support, and I have had to get a second job to cover our expenses. I just realized that I am easily angered by Sonja’s girls, but it’s not really them I’m angry with. What can we do about all of this?”


There are a few reasons we displace our frustrations on to others:

  • It’s more expedient to be angry with those who are right in front of us. Anger is not a patient emotion. When Mom disappoints Cassandra, Mom isn’t around, but Sonja is. Likewise, Daniel doesn’t have access to his wife’s ex-husband, so he finds himself angry with the ex-husband’s children. The anger spills out on to whoever happens to be close at hand.
  • It’s safer to be angry with “less important” people. Sometimes in stepfamilies, the newest members of the family (the “step-people”) are easier targets.  You don’t have the same depth of relationship that you have with your own children, so they seem less important to you.
  • It’s safer to be angry with safe people. There are two kinds of safe people. The first are those who we know can handle our anger. We trust them to be emotionally stable enough to take it. So really, showing them our anger is a backward compliment. The second are those connected to us in a stable relationship. Sonja’s stepdaughter has a very fragile relationship with her biological mother; for Cassandra to show anger toward her mother might push her farther away from Cassandra. It’s far less risky to be frustrated with her stepmom who has proven herself reliable.

Getting centered

Being responsible for our anger and managing it appropriately starts with getting centered on the real reason we are angry. But here’s an important key: We also have to recognize why we are afraid to direct the anger toward the right person. We have to ask ourselves… Am I fearful of pushing him or her further away? Am I fearful that I am partly responsible for what is happening? Am I feeling vulnerable or fragile in the home? Recognizing and taking responsibility for our fear will help us shift the focus back where it belongs.

But what if our children are misplacing their anger? How do we help them?  Often the challenge is we don’t know why they’re angry, or with whom they’re angry.  As parents we usually have a theory or two (and we’re often on target), but to assume we know is a mistake, especially with older children. When we approach our child, we need to be tentative with our thoughts in order to invite them to join us in exploring what is going on.

I suggested to Daniel the following script to engage his daughter. Approaching her with a soft, compassionate tone is a key to helping her find a repentant heart:

Cassandra, I’ve noticed a pattern that I need your help addressing. When your mother disappoints you, you frequently take out your frustration on Sonja or her kids. Now I know you are a generally respectful young lady, so it confuses me a little when you lash out at them. I’m thinking you are really hurt by your mom—you just take it out on the next easy target. Can you help me with that?

Once Cassandra recognizes her misplaced anger, Daniel can gently lead her to apologize to Sonja and figure out how she will appropriately deal with her hurt and anger toward her mother.

Copyright © 2014 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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