This post was last updated on October 4, 2022
Building frustration tolerance in children is a great way to help them develop emotionally - and save your sanity at the same time.
Have you ever watched your child struggle to put on a pair of shoes?
Try to shove puzzle pieces into the wrong spots?
Pack a bag so full it won't zip up?
Seeing our kids facing difficulties makes you to jump in and save the day. Here, do this. Or, often easier, let me do it for you.
It's our job to help them, right? Rescue them from frustration.
Frustration tolerance is the ability to work through a problem, to breathe, and to (hopefully) figure out a solution.
This skill is one your kids will need the rest of their lives. From peer interaction to work problem-solving, frustration tolerance is about more than just throwing toys.
The Hygiene Hypothesis
The Hygiene Hypothesis theory suggests children's immune systems develop better when they are exposed to various, well... germs. Kids who live in sterile environments are actually at a greater risk for developing allergic and autoimmune diseases.
And that's why walking barefoot and getting dirty are important (provided they're safe, of course).
What?? Being clean might actually cause more sickness?
Hmm... Science proposes that we should chill out with the Lysol and the sanitizer, and let go a little bit.
Because let's face it, good intentions to protect our kids can backfire.
So, what the heck does hygiene have to do with kids grappling with frustration over shoes and puzzles?
Germs builds better immune systems.
Exposure to frustration builds stronger emotional development.
And while it's normal to want to protect our children from unpleasant emotions, by limiting exposure to age-appropriate frustration, we are discouraging the development of perseverance, determination, and ability to handle uncomfortable events.
Here are 9 ways to help your child build frustration tolerance:
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1. PLAY TOLERANCE-BUILDING GAMES
Cooperative board games require players to work together to win. It's a good way to build tolerance and diffuse the feeling of Parents VS. Kids. Trust us, it works.
Peacable Kingdom makes GREAT cooperative board games for younger kids. See them all on Amazon here.
All the games require taking turns, following rules, and losing. Start with quick games and slowly increase the difficulty and duration with games of strategy for older kids, like Battleship.
2. STAND BACK AND WAIT
Observe. Don't come to the rescue too soon. Be patient and believe in your little one.
When my child tries cramming the wrong puzzle piece into one another, I want to just quickly hand him the correct pieces, but that would be doing him a disservice.
Let your child experience frustration.
If they never experience it, how can they learn to deal with it? Frustration tolerance is about getting through the tough things, not getting out. Breathe through it!
3. ENCOURAGE EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION
Hearing children when they're upset sucks, but stomps and screams are just as normal as giggles and coos (though less pleasant).
Frustrated children crying are as normal as happy children laughing.
Children need to know that healthy emotions (and expressions) are normal and acceptable.
Feelings aren't scary. Let them let them out!
4. LET THEM EXPERIENCE CONSEQUENCES
My three-year-old wanted a bedtime snack. I opened his yogurt for him, and after a bite or two, he became interested in something else and left his food.
I asked him, "Are you sure you're finished? You left the table and there won't be anything else offered tonight." He was sure until he went to bed telling me he was still hungry.
5. FIRM UP BOUNDARIES
Children NEED boundaries. They need freedom within those boundaries, but a child only thrives in an environment where they know what to expect. Help them.
Set firm "family rules" and be a model to your children.
And remember, children need to hear "No." To a toy while grocery shopping. To another episode of TV. To a second bowl of ice cream.
Kids need limits, and they need their parents to be in control enough to stick to them.
There's a book we're obsessed with on this topic. It's about setting them up for success through the use of firm, gentle discipline. It makes a huge difference. Check it out here.
6. Show, Don't Tell
How do you act when you are frustrated? I know my son has heard me give up and declare, "I can't handle this!" or "I'm done!"
Those little ears and eyes are listening and watching, and dammit they are always learning, so the pressure is on! Recently when he was driving me nuts with a bedtime battle I said, "I'm feeling frustrated so I am going to take a break."
I couldn't believe it when he said the same thing during a play date with a fellow three-year-old. He excused himself to the laundry room and calmed down.
7. Teach Coping Skills
Count to 10.
Take deep breaths.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth (stops the fight-or-flight response).
Or sing a line from Daniel Tiger, "When you're feeling frustrated, take a step back, and ask for help."
8. Delay GRatification (Often!)
Yes, you're tired. Yes, you just want them to finish so they can go to bed.
But a little delay will make you life a lot better in the long run.
Last night, before bed, Javin and I were coloring together. Whenever he wanted the crayon I was using, he would say, "Can I use that?" while trying to snatch it from my hand, mid-stroke.
I couldn't care less about the picture I was coloring, but for the sake of frustration tolerance-building, I made him wait till I was finished using it.
He was surprisingly cool with it and said, "Okay, I'll just color this part instead."
9. Help Name The Feelings
Simply knowing how they feel and being able to talk about it will help them feel more in control.
This book is helpful for kids under the age of 8. It thoughtfully explains what different feelings feel like - a concept many kids haven't been exposed to yet.
Encourage your child to name the feeling they're feeling. It does help!
It sounds counter-intuitive, but in the long run, sickness makes you healthier and frustration makes you calmer.
Children with greater frustration tolerance grow up to be happier and more successful. They understand that things aren't always easy and pleasant, and they survive it.
Why is it that when my son is frustrated, I want to pull my own hair out, too?
As he builds his tolerance, I realize I must build mine too.