5 Way to Increase Distress Tolerance in Kids
Written by Lorna Demedeiros, MSW, RSW
Parenting in 2023 looks different than it did 30 years ago. We now know so much more about child development, how our own stuff can impact our parenting, and the impact that stress has on our brains.
But what do we DO about it? I’ve put together some evidence-based strategies to empower you with your child’s stress tolerance.
When your child becomes dysregulated, the stress or frustration they’re experiencing is going beyond their ability to cope, hence the meltdowns and tantrums. Psychiatrist Dr. Dan Seigel refers to this as “flipping their lid”. When they’re in this mode, no words will help. Also, sending them to their room, or a corner sends them the message that they have to figure out how to cope with their overwhelm on their own. And they lack the skills to do so. This teaches them to shut down their emotions out of shame or embarrassment.
We as parents need to stay near our children when the meltdown begins, without saying any words. We watch for physical safety, such as by removing nearby objects so they can’t be thrown, redirecting other children away from the area, etc.
Then we need to hold our children (if it’s safe and you won’t get hit) and say “I will be here until all of your tears are out”.
This sends them the message that you can give your calm to their chaos (says Lisa Dion, founder of Synergistic Play Therapy), teach them how to regulate, and that you’re not afraid of their big emotions.
We’re all human, and we will all make mistakes. Our parents came from a generation that said children need to respect and obey their parents without question, and that the parent is always right. So we were raised to believe that we were always in the wrong, and couldn’t talk to our parents about mistakes they may have made.
Now, you can feel empowered to show your children the value of a heartfelt apology. When tucking them in for bedtime, try asking “Is there anything I did today that you’d like me to say sorry for?”
At bedtime, kiddos are calm enough to scan through their day and bring up interactions that may have felt hurtful that we didn’t notice. This is a beautiful opportunity to tell your children you value their connection over being right. This way, they get to drift off to sleep knowing they are loved and valued.
3. Be Curious
We all have a million and one things that need to be done. So if our child is telling us a story while we do the dishes, fold laundry, or try to work from home, it’s easy to grow impatient or just say “mhm” occasionally. But, if we stop for one moment, look them in the eye and actually pay attention, we get a glimpse of their imagination working, or ideas they find important, or problems they may be having.
If we teach our kids that we are always there to listen, the imaginative stories and excited ideas become conversations about drama with high school friends, career aspirations, and deeper emotional struggles they will navigate later in life.
4. Lead by Example
I was buckling my middle daughter into her car seat one morning, rushing because we were running late as usual. She looked at me, put her little hand on my cheek and said “Don’t forget to bweathe, mama.” We might not always notice, but our kids are watching us. They are watching when we mutter under our breath about the driver who cut us off, or complain to a waiter in a restaurant or speak to a manager in a store.
I’m not saying to stop doing these necessary things, but doing them in a calm, measured way, taking deep breaths and taking a break from conversations if needed, teaches our kids to do the same.
Being able to sit in uncomfortable conversations is so important for setting boundaries, navigating conflict, and discussing new ideas.
5. Be Gentle with Yourself
Give yourself the grace to mess up. Gentle, mindful parenting is a big departure from what most of us grew up with, so breaking the cycle of that through generations is not easy.
But we know our kids are worth it, we know we are up to the challenge, and if our kids see us try, fail, and keep trying, they’ll apply that same perspective to difficulties in their lives.
Send yourself compassion with your hand on your chest, and don’t forget to bweathe. You’ve got this!
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