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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

December 5: Helping Children Build Distress Tolerance

One of the things I love about my work is that I interact with parents who have children at all different ages and developmental stages, from toddlers to teenagers. Being able to think, talk, and share information about a wide range of ages and stages is part of what keeps my work interesting, and typically conversations with parents of a preschooler are quite different from the discussions I have with parents of tweens and teens. However, recently something unusual occurred: I talked about the same topic with parents of a 2 year-old, an 8 year-old, and a 13 year-old. It was noteworthy to me that the same topic arose across such different stages of development, so I knew had to write about this subject for a larger audience.

The theme that I spoke about with these families is building distress tolerance. So often when parents are asked what they want for their child they say, “I just want my child to be happy.” In a similar vein, a friend who has a 2 year-old recently said to me, “I was so anxious as a child. I just don’t ever want my child to feel that way.” Raising children who have the capacity to find and create joy is a laudable goal. And…we also know that challenging emotions such as frustration, anger, and worry are part of the human experience. In addition to helping our children discover what makes them feel happy, an important goal for social and emotional development is to help children build the capacity to tolerate challenging or upsetting feelings and manage stressful moments.

While many parents understand the importance of helping children be able to endure challenging emotions, in the moment this practice can feel really hard. I have written before about helping children manage big emotions and about how parents can manage their own reactions when children are dysregulated. The piece I want to address today is how to coach yourself through times when you have offered your calm, loving support and your child is still in the throes of crying, screaming, or just being upset.

A helpful tool is to use positive self-talk to coach yourself through these moments and remind yourself of long-term goals:

  • “Even though my child is upset, everyone is safe. Remember: my child is building distress tolerance.”

  • “This is a tough moment with a lot of screaming, but it’s not an emergency. My child is safe and I’m offering my calm, steady presence.”

  • “I’ve reminded my child about a lot of tools to help feel better. My child will use a strategy when they’re ready.

  • “I’m going to slow my breathing and try to stay calm even though my child is upset. I want my child to learn that these challenging moments are temporary. They don’t last forever.”

  • “It’s ok for my child to be sad, angry, or upset. Learning to tolerate these feelings now means the feelings won’t seem so scary in the future.”

  • “This is really hard, and my child is learning that they have the ability to do hard things.”

When a child learns to endure sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, or other challenging emotions, they are building the capacity to tolerate and manage those emotions throughout their lifetime. A 3 year-old who is disappointed that today isn’t the day for a playdate, a 7 year-old who is angry not to have the same toy as a friend, a 12 year-old who is sad about not being invited to a sleepover party, and a 16 year-old who feels embarrassed about being cut from a team are all building the capacity to cope with these powerful emotions. As painful as it can be to witness your child’s distress, it is so helpful to hold in mind that going through these experiences in childhood and adolescence helps build skills to tolerate future difficult moments.

Experiencing challenging emotions is part of being human. If you can set an intentional goal of supporting the development of distress tolerance, you will be communicating to your child that you expect them to feel and express a full range of human emotions. Your words and behavior will convey the message that people do not need to fear or avoid challenging feelings. Rather, we can expect those emotions to arise, understand that they are part of the human experience, and build skills and develop tools and strategies to self-soothe and manage challenging feelings.

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