| Causes | Signs & Effects | 9 Proven ways to help children improve frustration tolerance |
What is low frustration tolerance
Having a low frustration tolerance (LFT) is an inability to regulate one’s emotions when confronted with adversity, loss of control, or blocked goals. Children with low tolerance for uncomfortable feelings usually display irritability, emotional outbursts, or temper tantrums when things go wrong.
These children often lack emotional regulation. Due to their emotional dysregulation, they are usually misunderstood as strong-willed, spoiled, or entitled. The result is that many of them are not given the help they need to develop proper coping and regulating skills1.
Having high frustration-tolerance means the child’s ability to withstand the discomfort of negative emotions well. Children with high frustration tolerance usually have healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with unpleasant feelings.
Frustration is a complex emotional reaction. It is caused by the interaction of multiple brain circuits involved in emotional regulation. Scientists find that some children with low frustration-tolerance have deficits within these neural circuits2.
Some babies are frustrated more easily than others due to their innate temperament.
Easily frustrated infants tend to be less attentive and more active. They use less effective self-regulation strategies to regulate their emotional reactivity3.
Children learn how to self-regulate through co-regulating with their parents during their early childhood.
A nurturing parent can provide comfort and support to children who are experiencing frustrating or frightening events. Warm, sensitive parenting is strongly associated with toddler emotion regulation. Punitive and harsh parenting, however, can worsen a child’s aggression and emotional dysregulation4.
Although the presence of low frustration tolerance does not necessarily result from poor parenting, ineffective parenting can make it worse.
Infants and children who are easily frustrated show the following signs:
- Physical signs of frustration include banging, kicking, hostile anger, or other frustration-focused behaviors.
- Tantrums that are not developmentally appropriate.
- Appear more fussy.
- Poor self-soothers.
- Inflexible, intolerant to change or novelty3.
- Take fewer negative emotions or stressful events to trigger more crying5.
- Unable to handle criticism, failure, and pressure well.
- Explosive temper accompanied by aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent behavior.
- May have irrational beliefs such as catastrophization, perfectionism, blame-proneness, helplessness, etc6.
These children tend to have the following negative outcomes:
- Display oppositional defiant disorder symptoms.
- Poor school performance.
- Fewer social skills7.
- More externalizing behavior problems.
- Less support from parents and peers.
- More likely to have mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders8.
How to help children improve frustration tolerance
Tolerate your child’s low frustration tolerance
When a child has a full-fledged meltdown because of little things, it is hard for grownups to have empathy. We may even believe that their defiant behavior is intentional.
However, it is important that we stay calm and show them how we work through our own frustration.
Emotion regulation is not something we are born with. Children learn to build tolerance for frustration through observing adults regulate theirs9.
We must show them how to do it in real life, not just talk about it.
Use warm and responsive parenting
A warm and responsive parenting style enables children to develop secure attachments to their parents. It helps kids learn how to regulate their emotions.
Warmth in parenting is also associated with healthy brain development in children and adolescents10.
Attune to their frustration
In order for children to learn emotional regulation, they must experience it for themselves. The problem is children are not born with self-regulation, so we must help them get this experience first11.
Emotional attunement is one of the fastest and most effective ways to help frustrated children regulate their nervous systems12,13.
Attunement means expressing the same emotions as the child through words, facial expressions, and body language, but in a controlled way so that the child can see you understand them14.
For example, you can frown and say in a slightly stressed tone, “You’re so frustrated because you can’t open the box.”
This empathetic gesture is a co-regulation process that is essential in building frustration tolerance in children15.
Prepare & practice for potential frustration
Being disappointed can be a very frustrating experience. It’s even more frustrating when you don’t expect it.
Some children with very low frustration tolerance may have a difficult time even dealing with the thought of being disappointed. It’s much better to address it ahead of time than if the real thing hits them unexpectedly.
A child who is unable to control or tolerate their rapidly escalating frustration is unable to think rationally about their actions. They may have no idea how to cope at the moment.
If you warn your child about something that may frustrate them and practice dealing with it, they may be better able to control themselves in the heat of the moment.
This won’t work overnight, however. Building those regulating neural circuits in your child’s brain takes a lot of practice. Keep practicing with them and supporting their learning.
Teach problem-solving skills
Being unable to achieve your goals, coupled with a feeling of helplessness, leads to frustration. A proactive approach to address the root causes of distress may reduce frustration for children16.
Help them find different ways to create a different outcome despite the frustrating situation. Give them examples of times when you or others have similar struggles and overcome them.
Skills such as negotiation can help them eliminate unresolved conflicts.
Look out for signs of hunger or tiredness
Some children may be more prone to get frustrated around dinner time due to hunger.
According to a study, children who are given sugar when given challenging tasks are less likely to become frustrated17.
To prevent future meltdowns in older children, coach your child in frustration management. Talk to them about their emotions when they are calm. Let them talk about their feelings and listen carefully. Discussing emotions with children rather than dismissing them can help them develop self-regulation18.
Emotion coaching from parents teaches children to recognize their emotions and provides them with coping strategies for stressful situations.
Teach coping skills
Stress can be relieved instantly by coping skills. They include deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation19, and reappraising negative thoughts for low-tolerance children.
Research shows that combining problem-solving skills training for children with parent management training yields significantly better results in helping children manage their frustration20.
Parent management training focuses on child-rearing practices, parent-child interactions, and contingencies that can support behavioral change in easily frustrated children.
Psychotherapy & medical help
Poor frustration tolerance is a common symptom for children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)1 or Autism Spectrum Disorder21.
Some of them may experience extreme emotions in difficult situations. To improve their emotional regulation skills, such children may require medical intervention.
If the impairment in children is significantly affecting their quality of life or that of their families, parents may seek the help of medical and mental health professionals.
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- 2.Shaw P, Stringaris A, Nigg J, Leibenluft E. Emotion Dysregulation in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. AJP. Published online March 2014:276-293. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13070966
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