The Emotionally Healthy Child: Discomfort Tolerance

Increasing children's discomfort tolerance for emotional health.

Posted Sep 23, 2020

If you’re never able to tolerate a little bit of pain and discomfort, you’ll never get better.  — Angela Duckworth

One of the biggest challenges to children becoming emotionally healthy is the fact that they often cannot tolerate discomfort. They feel an uncomfortable emotion like anger and immediately want it to be gone, so they scream, punch, or throw a tantrum to release it. This provides relief but isn't constructive. One of our roles in raising emotionally healthy children and helping them transform lemons to lemonade includes helping them: 

  • embrace discomfort
  • increase their “discomfort tolerance” level
  • realize that uncomfortable emotions come and go

Children can learn to raise their discomfort tolerance by feeling uncomfortable in a safe environment. Fatima, age 7, wants to win at every board game she plays. She's a perfectionist by anyone's standards, which is why I introduced a game that was a little tough for her and which I thought she'd likely lose (a very uncomfortable emotion). And yes, she did lose at the board game, Clue, which incited some distressing emotions, but I helped her work through them and realize that she was bigger than any challenging emotion. 

When I was younger, I recall my parents introducing me to novel experiences to widen my comfort zone, such as going to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, with millions of people, and visiting cousins in Ireland who didn't yet have indoor plumbing, so the bathroom was outside (what?). I learned early on that sometimes the really good things are at the other end of discomfort, and you need to go through the discomfort, not around it, to have unforgettable and happier experiences. 

I'm not necessarily suggesting you take your children to farms without plumbing, but I am suggesting that you help expand your children's ability to tolerate discomfort in safe and positive ways. Of course, the pandemic of 2020 provides countless "teachable moments" where children can learn to experience their discomfort (e.g., "I hate masks"), express it constructively, and move beyond it to something more positive. 

Let's Remember

A child's brain isn't fully formed until their mid-twenties, and the last thing to come online is judgment (in their prefrontal cortex). This is one of the best reasons to muster more compassion for your child since he's not "fully cooked" yet. Children are learning not only how to bring logic (left brain) online sooner but also how to move from quick reactions (lower brain) to more deliberate responses (upper brain). Knowing that some of your child's challenges in becoming less reactive are biologically rooted can help you find the patience to help him yet again. This includes helping him form new neuronal pathways, where he tolerates more discomfort and builds skills of positive emotional health. 

References

Healy, Maureen (2018). The Emotionally Healthy Child. Novato, CA: New World Library. 

Healy, Maureen (2012). Growing Happy Kids. Deerfield, FL: HCI Books.