Advise Me

How to Help Your Child Learn Healthy Ways to Tolerate Frustration

Whether your 6-year-old is struggling to tie their shoes, your 10-year-old is trying to shoot a free throw or your teenager is learning to drive, frustration is bound to pop up. When your child gets frustrated, you have an opportunity to help them learn frustration tolerance. That’s the ability to cope with disappointment, obstacles, setbacks and strong emotions in a healthy and constructive way.

As a parent, it’s crucial for you to have age-appropriate expectations for tolerating frustration. Children’s abilities develop over time, and younger children are likely to struggle more with frustration than older children. 

Alyssa Bowman, a mental health counselor with Banner Health, explained that through age 5, children are quickly learning emotional intelligence: “This is a prime time to help a child learn about their emotions and develop tools to handle strong emotions,” she said.

Younger children also tend to show their feelings and difficulty with frustration in the way they behave and play. They learn about frustration tolerance by watching others and experiencing frustration themselves. 

Around age 11, children process information more logically. They grow less impulsive and become more thoughtful: “You can talk about strong emotions and reason through them,” Bowman said.

Older children continue learning about frustration by being exposed to it in their own lives. They can also begin to use critical thinking skills for problem-solving, and they can imagine hypothetical situations others might face.

Exposure to frustration can help

“Repeated, safe exposure to frustration triggers is the best way to build tolerance to frustration,” Bowman said.

Suppose your child is frustrated with trying to tie their shoe. You may want to jump in and tie it for them. Instead, let your child feel the feeling and point it out. You can say something like, “Wow, tying your shoe feels hard. I wonder if your frown and red face are saying you are frustrated! Let’s take a deep breath, and we will try it again together.” That way, you are validating the child’s emotion, offering a coping strategy and allowing your child to build frustration tolerance by trying again. 

Keep in mind that the goal is for the frustration to be something that can be felt and worked through without your child feeling overwhelmed. “I will often have older kids scale their level of frustration from zero to ten, with zero being no frustration and ten being completely overwhelmed,” Bowman said.

Typically, zero to three on the scale is a pretty happy headspace. Four to six is the ideal place to use a coping strategy to work on frustration. Anything above a six is too intense. “When you notice things like fast breathing, balling fists up and changes in verbal articulation, those are cues that the threshold is getting a little too high and it might be good to take a break and come back to it later,” Bowman said.

You want to expose children to frustration gradually. You can create age-appropriate challenges that cause frustration, but that your child can overcome with effort and perseverance. That way, they can build resilience and tolerance over time.

Strategies to try

Here are some techniques you can use to help your child build frustration tolerance:

  • Teach problem-solving skills that children can use when they’re facing frustrating situations. They can learn to identify the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, evaluate the pros and cons and choose the best course of action. Remind them that not all problems have immediate answers, and that taking a break or seeking help is okay. When problems can’t be solved right away, kids can learn patience and delayed gratification. You can help them learn strategies such as setting goals, breaking tasks into smaller steps and providing positive reinforcement for effort. 
  • Help them learn to recognize and label their emotions: You can teach them that frustration is a normal emotion and give examples of situations that might lead to feeling that way. Encourage your child to talk about their emotions and give them a safe space to express their feelings without judgment.
  • Encourage a growth mindset: A growth mindset is a powerful tool for developing frustration tolerance. Children can learn that setbacks and failures are opportunities for growth and learning, and that challenges can be stepping stones rather than insurmountable obstacles. 
  • Celebrate effort: Acknowledge your child’s progress and resilience in managing frustration. Be specific and genuine in praising your child’s perseverance, problem-solving skills and ability to bounce back from setbacks. 
  • Create a supportive environment: Children need a nurturing environment in order to build frustration tolerance. You can help by providing open communication, reassurance and opportunities for shared experiences and learning. 

What to expect at different ages and stages

Here are some guidelines that can help you understand what to expect. Of course, all children progress at their own pace. When you’re setting your expectations for frustration tolerance, keep in mind your child’s temperament, strengths and challenges. You can support and celebrate your child’s success at every age. And as your child gets older, you can adjust your expectations. 

Here’s what you’re likely to see in different age groups:

  • Toddlers (ages 1 to 3) are developing their emotional regulation skills. They may not have the language to express their frustration, so they might have tantrums or meltdowns.
    • What you can do: Model and teach basic strategies. You can redirect their attention, comfort them and offer choices.
  • Preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) are better able to verbally communicate their frustrations. It can still be hard for them to manage intense emotions, but they can start to learn coping strategies.
    • What you can do: Teach them deep breathing techniques, guide them toward solutions and encourage them to use words to express their feelings.
  • Early elementary school-age children (ages 6 to 8) develop more self-control and problem-solving skills. They start to understand delayed gratification and can more constructively cope with frustration.
    • What you can do: Encourage them to take breaks, practice being patient and journal or draw to help regulate their emotions. 
  • Late elementary school-age children (ages 9 to 12) can reason more effectively, but academic and social challenges can add to their frustration.
    • What you can do: Teach them more advanced strategies for solving problems, foster a growth mindset, encourage them to seek help and emphasize resilience and learning from mistakes.
  • Adolescents (age 13 and older) face unique challenges with frustration since they deal with issues of identity, independence and peer relationships. They might be frustrated with academics or conflicts with friends or family.
    • What you can do: Promote open communication, validate your child’s feelings and help them develop healthy ways to cope. Encourage them to participate in hobbies and to turn to trusted adults for support. 

If you don’t think your child is responding to frustration in an age-appropriate way or isn’t able to use coping strategies, talk to a mental health professional about your concerns. “Poor frustration tolerance in children can be a sign of mental health issues like anxiety, depression or ADHD,” Bowman said. 

How to be a good role model

Children watch how you handle frustration and learn emotional regulation by observing your behavior. Being honest with your feelings and showing how you use coping strategies in the moment helps a child understand frustration tolerance. “If you are regulated when stressful events happen, that teaches your child regulation strategies,” Bowman said. “And when you are frustrated, that’s a teachable moment for a child.”

You can say things like, “I feel frustrated. I need to take a break or a deep breath.” Statements like that show a child that feelings are valid, and that you can do things to regulate strong emotions. If you re-engage in the trigger from a regulated place, you show your child that it’s possible to feel a strong feeling, handle it and persevere into resilience.

“Frustration tolerance is typically considered a childhood developmental task, but adults can learn, practice and utilize frustration tolerance skills too,” Bowman said. “It’s like building a muscle. The more opportunities you have to be frustrated, the stronger you get and the easier it is to access problem-solving skills and coping strategies.”

The bottom line

Tolerating frustration is not easy, but it’s an important life skill. By creating age-appropriate challenges and equipping your child with the resources to face them, you’ll help them learn how to thrive in the face of frustration.

If you would like to know more about helping your child tolerate frustration, or you’re concerned about the way your child responds to frustration, reach out to a behavioral health specialist at Banner.

Other useful articles

Behavioral Health Children's Health Parenting