Therapists love to talk about building children’s “frustration tolerance” or helping adults with their “distress tolerance.” Tolerating negative emotion is harder than it sounds. Remember the last time you got a parking ticket and muttered a curse word before realizing your kid/friend/boss was listening? Maybe you remember skipping the gym or not studying for school because it seemed like too much work? These are all examples of times where a little more tolerance for uncomfortable emotions, or distress, would probably have helped you be the best version of yourself.
In my own home I had a recent experience around distress tolerance that I thought worth sharing. My husband and I give our kids permission to watch cartoons in the morning before we wake up so long as they are 1. Dressed for school first, and 2. Turn off the TV when we come out at 6:45 am. This has the effect of motivating them to get to bed at night, get dressed on their own in the morning and, most importantly, let us sleep past 6 am! We’ve had this rule for well over a year.
For the last two weeks, however, my younger child has been having increasing difficulty with the rules. I know, of course, that I should respond with clear and consistent limits. If you tantrum, there’s no TV the next day. But for about two weeks I was having trouble with distress tolerance. Specifically, I did not want to experience the distress of my son crying when I enforced the rules. Finally, though, I had enough. I took away the remote control for a day. Interestingly, that was all it took. The next morning – beautiful behavior! There was no crying, no request for more TV, lots of hugs and kisses. So, in my reluctance to tolerate one rough morning I instead tolerated TWO WHOLE WEEKS of tough mornings.
It’s easy to blame the child and say that he was showing poor frustration tolerance when the TV went off, but the reality was that I was the one not tolerating enough. As soon as I took control back, tolerated his tantrum, and followed my own rules, order was restored. Of course, things are not always this black and white. Still – it’s worth asking – can you tolerate more distress in the moment to improve your life overall?