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How To Grow Your Child’s Distress Tolerance

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By Grant Stenzel, MS Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

distress tolerance“Parenting is hard.”

How many times have you heard that?

It’s completely true, of course. Good parenting is supremely difficult. But have you ever thought about why it’s so tough? There are lots of reasons, including having to put your own life on hold, spending much less quality time with your partner and, of course, the countless frustrations those adorable kiddos cause every day.

But there is also a reason that isn’t mentioned often. You can be an active and committed parent with the best of intentions and still mess things up. One of the most relevant examples of this is a parent who protects their children at all costs to keep them pain-free. It’s often done completely because of love.

Problem is, impenetrable parental shields come with a side effect: kids that grow up not knowing how to deal with disappointment and failure.

You can’t be good at something you’ve never done.

I honestly believe today’s kids don’t handle disappointment and failure well because they haven’t dealt with it. You don’t need distress tolerance when you’re comforted at every moment.

When kids get bad grades, parents often direct their vitriol at teachers. When kids sit on the bench at the game, parents have a stern talking-to with the coach. To be clear, I fully understand why parents feel the need to intervene in situations like these. Their child is experiencing pain, and parents feel compelled to protect them. But this behavior can actually prevent learning and stunt growth.

As you work on letting your child feel these low points in life without immediately intervening, a practical acronym to remember is TIPP. It’s used in dialectical behavior therapy to calm down during an emotional breaking point. TIPP is short for Temperature, Intense Exercise, Paced breathing and Paired muscle relaxation.


How to TIPP

  • Temperature: Splash face with cold water or sit in front of the A/C to literally cool down.
  • Intense exercise: Do some sprints, go for a long jog, swim laps or simply do some jumping jacks until you’re tired.
  • Paced breathing: Inhale for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. Exhale for four. Hold for four. Repeat.
  • Paired muscle relaxation: Tighten an arm muscle for five seconds, then let it relax. Do the same for other muscles.


To build your child’s distress tolerance, work on your distress tolerance.

The thought of our kids failing, being disappointed or being sad is 100% no fun. When we shield them from these things, we aren’t just protecting them. We’re protecting ourselves. Make no mistake: It’s supremely difficult to stand back and let your children be uncomfortable, hurt, angry or disappointed. But if you can pull it off, the benefits are enormous.

And if you truly want behavior to sink in, it’s best to model the behavior in front of your kids. Whether you’re loving a family member, demonstrating work ethic or dealing with your own disappointments and failures, the way you act will steer how your children act in similar situations.

Another DBT acronym to remember is ACCEPTS. Turn to it when distress runs high in your own life.


How ACCEPTS works

  • Activities: Stay busy and keep your mind away from the distress source.
  • Contributing: Do something good for someone else.
  • Comparisons: Add a dose of perspective. You have probably been in a worse situation than this and you made it through.
  • Emotions: Intentionally call on positive emotions to counteract the distress.
  • Push away: Can’t deal? It’s okay to banish a problem from your mind and return to it later.
  • Thoughts: Basically, distract your brain. Get a fun song stuck in your head, try to remember your times tables from grade school or do anything else that keeps your brain harmlessly occupied.
  • Sensation: Turn to your five senses for relaxation and comfort.


Failure leads to success.

When you start building a new skill you’re probably going to be bad at it. But the more you practice, the better you become.

In short: Let your kids be disappointed. Let them fail. If you do, they will emerge stronger and better equipped to handle this world on their own and make a positive impact. Which, when you think about it, is really the end goal of parenting.