Everyone is a winner, but what happens when you lose?
The value of building children’s frustration tolerance
It sounds wonderful for all children to make the soccer team, come home from gymnastics tournaments with big trophies, and always get their first choice of crayon colors. It seems fair to think that no child should have to put up with annoying classmates, do assignments that are difficult for them, be last on the lunch line, or take classes they don’t like. But, if all children really did experience this utopian state of existence, how prepared would they be for the real world? As adults, we get turned down from jobs, lose sales competitions, have to settle for used cars, work with irritating colleagues, face life challenges, wait on line in the grocery store, and manage responsibilities we are not fond of. What would happen if we never learned how to deal with any of these things when we were children? Pouting, stomping your feet, and throwing a temper tantrum doesn’t usually make traffic magically disappear. Unfortunately, we all need to tolerate frustration in our daily lives.
Essentially, we are all born with low frustration tolerance (LFT), meaning the irrational belief that we can’t stand things that we actually can. High frustration tolerance (HFT) develops over time as we learn that frustrations are a part of life and we can get through them when they occur. When you don’t get something you wanted or something happens that you wish hadn’t, you always have two options: make yourself miserable about it or deal with it. Let’s take the example of getting a flat tire. You could tell yourself, “this is horrible, I can’t take it anymore,” and let the incident ruin your whole day or you could remind yourself, “this is pretty annoying, I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’ll take care of it and get through it” and move on once the tire is fixed. Clearly, the latter choice is healthier and more productive.
It is important for children to experience frustrations in order to learn that they can handle uncomfortable, disliked, and undesired events because it is inevitable that they will continue to experience these kinds of events for the rest of their lives. Since young children generally have LFT, it might be a child’s initial response to start crying because she can’t have her favorite candy; however, she can learn that not getting the candy won’t kill her and that she can still have fun playing with her toys without it. She will learn that she may have really wanted it, but she doesn’t absolutely have to have it and it isn’t worth getting herself overly upset about. As this lesson is learned over time, it is likely that she will be able to respond more appropriately when she doesn’t get exactly what she wants in the future because she has learned to tolerate the frustration. And in fact, behaving appropriately might even convince her mother to give her that candy, reinforcing the benefits of HFT. Although it may take several experiences like this one to fully internalize this HFT lesson, the value of the experiences cannot be underestimated.
Attempting to change children’s naturally egocentric desires and drive for instant gratification to build their HFT requires them to experience frustrations. It is actually helpful for them to lose at a board game, be denied a new toy on occasion, and work hard in a class they dislike because it is difficult for them. Many parents and teachers do not want their children to ever have to experience frustration because it is, obviously, frustrating; both to the child and to the adult who needs to flex their own HFT muscles to deal with a frustrated child. No one ever said helping children develop HFT was an easy task, but modeling it for them is a good place to start. Another important lesson to be learned is that HFT pays off, not just in the moment when you are getting yourself through a challenging situation, but in the long run, when all of the hard work leads to greater successes.
Next up: Chris Smith on Stress and Health