Increasing frustration tolerance for more effective parenting

by Candice Siu, M.A.

Having worked with children with behavioral difficulties in the past few years, I have developed great respect for parents. I believe the behavioral improvements seen in these children are largely due to their parents’ increasing frustration tolerance, in addition to their mastery of parenting strategies.

Most often, parents are at their wits’ end when they enter therapy with their children. Parents often report going through daily tug-of-wars with their children. They also report spending hours upon hours meeting with teachers and other health professionals. Many parents have attended a number of parent-training sessions and are well-versed in the techniques. However, they complain that there are little corresponding changes in their children’s behaviors.

In therapy, parents are asked to practice specific parenting strategies as homework assignments. At the subsequent session, parents often report having attempted the technique but that “it didn’t work.” Upon clarification, parents often sheepishly respond that they “gave in” or “felt bad” for the child. Parents then disclose that they start implementing a technique and cease to follow through with the necessary steps because of low frustration tolerance. For example, parents are usually able to implement a consequence when the child engages in an unwanted behavior. However, if the child then returns after a period of time to plead for the consequence to be lifted (e.g. for the Nintendo DS to be returned to them) parents find it difficult to stand by and continue to enforce the original consequence. This is particularly true if the child is whining, crying, or arguing incessantly. Some parents report saying to themselves, “I cannot tolerate this whining anymore, I want some peace and quiet”. Other parents report saying to themselves, “I feel bad about taking away his videogames. It’s not really his fault that he can’t control his behaviors. I can’t bear seeing him disappointed.” Both of the statements are examples of parents’ irrational beliefs about their frustration tolerance. In the first example, the parent thinks that s/he will not be able to withstand the frustration associated with hearing their child’s whiny pleading. In the second example, the parent has the irrational belief the s/he will not be able to tolerate punishing the child or witnessing the child’s disappointment. Neither of the statements is factually true, yet the parents’ irrational beliefs prevent them from following through with effective parenting strategies.

I acknowledge that it is far from easy to listen to a whiny child or to witness a child’s disappointing face. However, tolerating short-term frustration as such leads to long-term benefits for the children’s behaviors and the parents’ livelihood. What may be helpful in these situations is to weigh the pros and cons of tolerating discomfort. For example, a disadvantage for tolerating frustration would be the need to listen to a few more minutes of whining on several occasions; whereas an advantage would be a reduction in or total elimination of future whining. Tolerating short term discomfort usually leads to long-term positive outcomes. It is for these reasons that I have increasing respect for parents who are able to manage children with behavioral difficulties.

Next up: Amy Horowitz, M.S. on Managing Awfulizing

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