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Raising Resilient Kids and the Role of Distress Tolerance

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Sharon and James struggled with infertility for years before they finally adopted a newborn they named Ross. An adorable bundle of energy, he filled their lives with light.  But when the child was four, the couple came to me with a concern: Ross wouldn’t accept “no” for an answer. He always expected things to go his way. And the parents found it difficult to set limits.

Returning from business trips, James would shower Ross with souvenir gifts. And he routinely purchased toys and treats for his son. But now the couple worried that by not setting limits they had failed to establish a sense of authority.

What lay beneath their concern was that both parents found it difficult to see Ross become upset. Loving, nurturing parents, they prioritized their child’s sense of safety and connection. As much as they understood the value of setting limits, they feared Ross’s negative reactions because it hurt to see him struggle emotionally.

Learning to tolerate your child’s negative reactions is a developmental process that occurs in stages. A newborn baby’s signals are meant to provoke immediate loving attention, and it’s critical for parents/caregivers to meet those needs: when babies cry we feed them, soothe them, rock them, change their diapers—whatever it takes to help the baby feel calm and regulated.

But babies grow quickly. At some point, a baby might fuss for a few moments and then settle on her own. A parent with adequate distress tolerance can ride out those fleeting moments of discomfort, understanding that the baby may need a bit of time to experiment with self-soothing.

As babies become toddlers, deciding whether to intervene or let the child stretch his or her emotional muscles (within a healthy range of growth) becomes even more important. Parents need to set limits because toddlers simply can’t know what’s best for them. (A fourth cookie before dinner?, chewing on an infant sibling’s teething ring with her?). Setting limits helps teach children that they can’t automatically get what they want. But parents have to put up with the inevitable displeasure that ensues.

When we feel calm and centered, we can provide the calm regulation that our children need—regulation that over time, they come to provide for themselves.

Of course, it’s difficult to watch your child struggle and you may feel that you are giving in too much or even adding to your child’s lack of flexibility. But go easy on yourself. Parenting is a journey. It’s natural to want to protect our children. Sometimes, by doing so, we are also trying to protect ourselves from pain.

When we have distress tolerance, it doesn’t mean we disconnect emotionally from our child or simply say no or walk away. Children benefit as we remain lovingly present and engaged through the wide range of their inevitable and expected negative emotions. Our engagement—not avoiding discomfort–is what helps our children learn to develop their own distress tolerance. The simple awareness and ensuing compassion I urged Sharon and James to have for themselves during their son’s developing sense of independence helped them tolerate a wider range of his negative emotions. They called me six months later to let me know that happily, they were all developing more distress tolerance.

Simply being aware of our emotions lets us pause to bolster our hardiness and stay calm when our children have negative reactions to the inevitable limits we set. In the process of helping our children along, we grow in our resilience as parents.

I share more about how to support resilience in the book Beyond Behaviors. 

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