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 frustration tolerance 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.
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 reactivity2.
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 LFT have deficits within these neural circuits3.
Children learn how to self-regulate through co-regulating with their parents during their early childhood. Warm, sensitive parenting is strongly associated with toddler emotion regulation.
A nurturing parent can provide comfort and support to children who are experiencing frustrating or frightening events. 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, it can contribute to its worsening.
Signs & Effects
Infants who are easily frustrated show a pattern of negative emotions and distress to novelty.
They display more physical signs of frustration, such as banging or kicking, and more frustration-focused behaviors. These children have a lower threshold for distress. They may be seen as being fussy, poor self-soothers, and intolerant to change. It takes fewer negative triggers for these babies to cry more5.
Older children with LFT have chronic, extreme difficulty dealing with frustration. They may have child tantrums that are not developmentally appropriate. Such children tend to be inflexible. Criticism, failure, and pressure are harder for them to handle.
LFT children are usually viewed as defiant children or explosive children because they have more tendency to be aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent. They are also more likely to do poorly in school due to more behavioral problems and less social skills6.
Parental reactions to these children are typically less supportive and responsive. In stressful situations, harsh discipline or a lack of responsiveness can exacerbate anger and frustration7.
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 theirs8.
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 adolescents9.
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 first10.
Emotional attunement is one of the fastest and most effective ways to help frustrated children regulate their nervous systems11,12.
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 them13.
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 children14.
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 solving problems may reduce frustration for children15.
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.
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 frustrated16.
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-regulation17.
Emotion coaching from parents teaches children to recognize their emotions and provides them with coping strategies for stressful situations.
Research shows that combining problem-solving skills training for children with parent management training yields significantly better results in helping children manage their frustration18.
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 Disorder19.
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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