Tolerance: How Developing the Skill of Tolerance Can Build Strength in Your Child and Your Family

by | Aug 2, 2019

Tolerance: its dictionary definition sports words like ability, willingness, capacity, and endurance. All words that affirm strength. But what is this strength asked to do in the act of tolerating? This skill is put into action to tolerate where we disagree, to tolerate what we find adverse or uncomfortable, and to tolerate spaces that challenge and are hard. The willingness and choice to employ the skill of tolerance in spaces that are challenging and hard leads us to these strengths of ability, capacity and endurance.

Sign me up for adversity and discomfort! “No thanks!” most of us would respond. Why would we choose to endure something uncomfortable when we have the means to make it go away? Discomfort can take on the feeling of being deprived and we have an inherent tendency toward the familiar, we lean toward ease. The space outside of our comfort zone can feel uncertain and worrisome. It may seem ironic but avoiding discomfort actually increases places where we find and feel uncomfortable. Avoiding discomfort shrinks our comfort zone. Discomfort is a signal and how we respond to it can lead us toward growth. So, how can we be ok with discomfort? And how can parents tolerate their children’s discomfort? Isn’t a part of the parenting job to remove obstacles and create opportunity for our children to excel? To create ease so that a child can blossom? More irony.

In this space of ease, expectations can compound. Expectations that things should be easy and immediate. The desire for comfort at all times. The resulting uncertainty when it isn’t can leave young developing minds with fear as unfamiliar feelings overpower their ability to tolerate this distress.

Strengthening distress tolerance is an internal job engaged in in an external way. This effort expended toward building self-sufficiency is a crucial ingredient of distress tolerance.

Here are 5 tips toward beginning to build distress tolerance:

  1. Start with YOU. Develop parental awareness of your own discomfort and ability to absorb your child’s discomfort. It can be hard to watch our children struggle, particularly knowing how quickly we could remove their discomfort but that act actually disempowers their growth and development of tolerance. A parent’s challenge is to endure their own discomfort and inconvenience felt at witnessing their child’s frustration and pain and to resist the urge to fix it for them. Practice what is called the dispassionate gaze in yoga. You see and acknowledge the discomfort but you do not focus on it or try to remove it immediately. Instead allow for your child to fully recognize and name it and begin to sort it out for themselves. Encourage their own curiosity around what is happening and ask how they are feeling and thinking. Children have an incredible capacity for creativity and problem solving. See what they think to do about what is happening. Assist them in their effort to solve their own problem.

  2. Build Struggle Muscles Together. Help your child to learn what their struggle looks and feels like. Empower your child to manage tough emotions and experiences. Don’t avoid difficult situation, instead be a coach on the sidelines not a player in the game ready to offer encouragement and support. This framework of being responsive to your child while remaining calm will help them learn to regulate their own emotions. Allowing children to know, name and feel failure and disappointment will build their capacity for future comfort with these experiences. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Practice, practice, practice.

  3. Slow Down. The pace of modern life has many moving faster and feeling more distracted and disconnected. When we hurry we can seek short cuts. We look for efficiency and ease. Tolerance is anything but efficient. It can be inconvenient and uncomfortable and time-consuming to develop. Allow for this. Make time for reflection and budding self-awareness. Set the expectation that while it may be hard you believe that they can handle it.

  4. Stay Positive. Don’t get discouraged at beginning attempts at skill building. See that your example provides the strongest method your child has of learning this skill. Use positive self-talk and model this talk out loud so your child can hear you and learn your language. “This is hard, I’m not sure what to do next but I’ve done it before and I believe I can figure it out”.

  5. Break it Down and Begin Now. See this as a skill to be taught rather than bad behavior. Take small steps. When learning any new skill it is helpful to break it down into more manageable parts. Call attention to successes and begin to develop their internal narrative; “I noticed that you felt frustrated when you had to wait a turn and that you stayed calm, how were you able to do that?” Simplify the home environment so that it is a safe and consistent place to begin practicing.

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