Frustration tolerance is the secret to resilience in kids

Genevieve Muir
Genevieve Muir
Parent Educator and Obstetric Social Worker at the Mater hospital in Sydney and also a mother to four beautiful boys, Gen is passionate about working with families around connection and attachment with their children from birth to five years. Gen assists parents to filter out the noise and find the parenting rhythm that works for them. She has a Bachelor of Social work...
Created on May 28, 2024 · 6 mins read

One of the best ways to help our kids build resilience is through slowly increasing their ability to tolerate frustration and disappointment. We need to give kids the opportunity to try hard things, struggle, fall, and sometimes even fail or be disappointed.


This is no mean feat. I have yet to meet a parent who feels amazing when their child is facing something tricky. But the evidence is clear that the best way to build resilience, compassion, kindness, and so many other EQ skills for our children is to show them that they are welcome to come to us when they are happy and when they are sad. Teaching them that all emotions are healthy. 

Being with a child who is really, really upset isn’t easy for anyone. But what can help is if we remember that our kids, like us, just want to be seen and heard. They want to know that nothing can make them unlovable, even when they feel terrible. 

Why is it so hard not to step in when our kids are struggling?


In a current culture where parents feel very responsible for their kid’s happiness, it can be really hard for children to get the opportunity to experience disappointments. But disappointments will happen, and without practice at managing big feelings through small moments while young, they can have a much bigger effect later in life.

When it comes to our kids being frustrated, left out, hurt, or disappointed, we need to focus less on the urge to whip out the fix-it toolbox. Instead, resilience can be found when you use these little setbacks as wonderful opportunities to listen, and emotion coach your child. 


What can we do to build frustration tolerance?


Hovering over our children and jumping into action when they experience any discomfort (whether that’s physical or emotional) isn’t doing them favours. We deny our kids the chance to experience hurt when we a) prevent them from taking physical risks, and b) step in too soon at the sign of frustration or sadness. 

Building frustration tolerance in our little ones means holding back the ‘be careful’ and being okay with the feelings that come with trying something and not nailing it at the first crack. 

And look, this is all easier said than done. It can be tempting to protect our children from all heartbreak and struggle, but this robs them of that incredible sense of achievement when they get to look at you with pride and say “I did it!!!” 

Practice being ok with emotion, even from their baby years. As they struggle to reach the ball, that’s just out of their grasp you can commentate without rushing to fix or solve. “Oh you want the ball. That’s frustrating!” Of course, I am not suggesting you stand by while your child dissolves into tears without your help. But just the process of pausing and commenting on those emotions without rushing to solve is a really useful thing for babies and children. 

With toddlers and older kids, you can commentate “Agh you can’t quite reach! I wonder what you can do?” Your child may ask that you pick them up, but by finding a workaround themselves, they develop problem-solving and creativity. 

Sometimes it’s about reminding yourself that struggle is how kids learn, and holding your breath as you allow risk-taking. 


Tips for helping kids through tough moments


The good news is, there are only two things needed to sit with the feelings that will come up for your child when they are scared, sad, or disappointed. 

These are connection and welcoming feelings. 

Connection

We talk to our kids daily, but we are not always connecting. When you are in a connected conversation with your child, it looks and feels different. The rest of the world fades out and it’s like time could stop.  

Part of being connected is looking at your child to sense “What do you need right now? Are you feeling OK or not OK? Do you need me to just listen, or provide some advice?”….. and giving just enough (not too much) of what our child needs. 

There are two keys to making a conversation connected. The first is to really listen. We can demonstrate this by being curious, wanting to know more, and saying less while using our body to show we are listening. 

Underlying anything we experience as humans is emotion. And when, as parents, we can be what our kids need us to be when they are having feelings, everything goes better. 

Welcoming feelings

When kids are upset, it helps to understand what our kids need from us – which is to welcome those feelings, with all the mess and anxiety they bring up for us. 

We feel responsible for our kids’ happiness. When they are distressed, we feel distressed. This often results in failing to meet their needs. We try to make things ok, distract our kids, or avoid the emotions.

This is understandable. After all, from the minute we were handed our first baby we were told when it cries it’s our job to work out what’s wrong and fix it. To stop the sad!

The problem is that babies (and our kids) need to feel heard and seen, and for their fears to be welcomed as a natural response to distress.  We need to summon what it takes to sit in that uncomfortable feeling with our child and say, “That feeling makes sense, I know what that feels like, and I am here with you.” 

It’s not easy to hear our child saying they are worried or sad without trying to make it ok (and I can promise you, it never gets easier). Fear and anxiety can – we all know – feel like a fire that we will do almost anything to put out, even for a moment. But when we can just ‘sit in the fire’ with them, our children feel less alone in these feelings, and they can build their own experience of resolving difficult emotions for themselves. 

The fear we may have as parents is that if we do this, we could make things worse. In my experience, the exact opposite is true. A connected conversation, that is willing to sit in the emotion, might be just as healing for us, as it can be for our kids. 

Most importantly, allowing us to acknowledge our negative emotions can lead us to more resilient and positive responses. It can lead to conversations about what we can do to help, even in a small way. It can build empathy for the lives of others, perhaps the most important emotion to hope for in a well-raised adult. 

Sitting without our kids in uncomfortable emotions can be one of the hardest things to do as a parent, but when we do it can bring more peace, connection, compassion, and gratitude into our own homes.  

Wrapping it up


The instinct to protect our child from every scary feeling or experience in the world is hard to avoid. It’s even harder to fight. 

But for our kids to relish in independence and be all that they can be, they need to develop tolerance for frustration. For disappointment. For when things don’t go to plan. They need to learn that those feelings are valid and we don’t need to wish them away (or pretend they don’t exist). 

Being able to sit in that discomfort and get up to try again anyway – that sets your child up for life. 

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