To preface, I am a first-time mother to an 18-month-old daughter, so I won’t pretend to have all the answers. I do know what has worked for us, both for our own sanity and for our daughter. Distress tolerance. It sounds unpleasant — honestly, at first it really is. What is distress tolerance? Unless you’ve been to a decade of therapy, you probably haven’t heard of it. Distress tolerance is a person’s ability to manage actual or perceived emotional distress. It also involves being able to make it through an emotional incident without making it worse.
Distress tolerance is a skill.
It’s a good skill to have for children and for adults.
My parenting philosophy has been rooted in distress tolerance. I wholeheartedly believe that it is not my job to create a world that is easy for my daughter. That’s not to say I won’t help my daughter. She’s a toddler, and she’s not self-sufficient. Distress tolerance is a foundation in which to build upon. I don’t expect my toddler to tolerate all of life’s stressors. But I do believe teaching her how to sit through hard and stressful times will help her to become a more empathetic, caring human — which is ultimately the goal.
To help children learn distress tolerance skills, first we have to develop our own distress tolerance. We have to be OK with not being OK. Watching your child be sad or frustrated is not fun for anyone, and our natural instinct is to shield them from sadness and disappointment. If we can practice tolerance in accepting our child’s distress, we can actually prevent some distress from ever occurring in the first place.
My daughter doesn’t like to hear the mower. The first time she heard it as a toddler, she had a full blown meltdown. Our first reaction was “let’s get her out of this situation and protect her from being upset.” Then we decided to make that moment a teachable moment. Since it’s unreasonable to leave and prevent her from hearing sounds she doesn’t like every single time, we sat in it. We let her be upset. We held her and told her she was safe, she was allowed to be upset, and everything would be OK. A few minutes later, she was waving at our lawn-care professionals. Now, each week she is excited for their arrival and follows them, going from the front door to the back door watching and waiting to see what they will do next. This is just one example of how we incorporate distress tolerance in our everyday life.
Toddlers are irrational. They have all the deep feelings and needs we have as adults, but with very little emotional regulation or communication skills. When we view tantrums as bad and something to avoid, we fail to recognize that it’s their way to communicate. And often, it’s a pretty effective way for them to communicate. Tantrums almost always get our attention. As adults, we have developed our emotional regulation and have created tools to help us get through a frustrating situation or event. Toddlers often don’t have those skills yet, and it’s our job to teach them.
Skills to Use When Sitting in the Distress
- Deep breathing. We taught this to our toddler when she turned one. It’s something my wife and I have always practiced, and it has worked well for us. We call it popcorn candle breathing. Breathe in and “smell the popcorn” then breathe out and “blow out the candle”.
- Counting. We don’t count to speed things up or to act as a timer for the time she is allowed to be upset. We count because it distracts her and is a predictable pattern that disrupts the current distress.
- Distraction. When our daughter begins to throw a tantrum, we use distraction to help her get out of her own head in the moment. It’s not our first choice, but it is a quick fix.
- Radical acceptance. Accept that emotional distress is OK. It’s a part of life. Our children are emotional humans, just like us. Accepting the emotions for what they are helps us to move on.
This list is neither extensive nor perfect. There will be hundreds of times that these skills won’t work, or when tantrums are too far gone. But the goal is to lay a stable foundation for our children. At least that is our goal. I cannot make my daughter happy her whole life, but I can help her learn the skills to make herself happy.
When I watch my daughter use these skills, I have hope that she will need less therapy than me, and maybe her children will need even less therapy. And isn’t that hope for a brighter future something we share as parents?