Frustration Tolerance: Tips for Building this Skill by Age

The ability to tolerate frustration is not merely about weathering the storm of the moment, but about instilling the persistence, adaptability, and resilience that set your child up for future success.

Emily Veno
July 28, 2023

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I recently bought a new laptop. My initial excitement to explore all its new features and finally have more storage space took a negative turn when I discovered that the trackpad worked differently than my previous one.

It sounds silly, but after twenty minutes of experimentation, such a small thing as not being able to click and drag the way I was used to made my heart start racing and my brain start buzzing. Why wouldn’t it just work?!

“I can’t do this right now!” I exclaimed, and slammed the laptop shut to take a break. Luckily, after a few minutes to shake off my frustration, I was able to try again. Eventually, of course, I got the hang of it.

Frustration is an emotion that can turn a tiny setback like the one I experienced into a big feeling - even for adults, but especially for kids. It's an inevitable human experience, yet it's also a crucial emotional catalyst that can lead to perseverance, problem-solving skills, and resilience when managed effectively. My ability to recognize the first signs of frustration (my heart racing and brain buzzing) helped me avoid flipping out over something minor, by taking a break before things escalated.

As parents and caregivers, we are instrumental in teaching our children to navigate the turbulent waters of frustration. The art of mastering frustration tolerance is more than a coping mechanism or way to address your child’s behavior problems; it's a crucial life skill that sets the foundation for a resilient, successful adulthood.

In this post, we’ll walk through how to build frustration tolerance at each stage of child development, and also address how common learning differences like ADHD and autism can impact your child’s struggle.

Why Frustration Tolerance is Vital

From an early age, we begin experiencing obstacles and challenges. How kids react and cope with these challenging situations can significantly shape their approach to difficulties throughout life. Frustration tolerance allows individuals to manage disappointments, maintain persistence in the face of adversity, and stay focused on long-term goals despite setbacks.

In essence, this crucial life skill is the cornerstone of resilience, a key component of emotional intelligence, and a predictor of future success. At Prisma, we focus on frustration tolerance through our coaching model (mentors work 1:1 with learners to help them set goals and develop their strengths), and our emphasis on project-based learning. We find that when kids need to persevere through a project & revise their work based on feedback (instead of just filling out worksheets or multiple-choice tests), they hone their ability to persevere even when a task gets hard.


Pre-School Years (Ages 2-5)

During these formative years, young children often encounter frustration as they navigate a world filled with tasks that are new and sometimes overwhelming, and boundaries set by caregivers that they might not understand. Their expressions of frustration can take the form of tantrums and meltdowns, signaling their struggle to cope with these big feelings.

Here are some strategies you can introduce to help your frustrated child in the moment:

  1. Deep Breaths: Introduce deep breaths as a means to self-soothe. For example, encourage them to imagine they are blowing up a balloon in their tummy, teaching them the power of breath to calm their mind and body.
  2. Time Out: Time-outs aren't punishment, but a safe space for the child to regain their composure. The lesson here is that it's okay to take a break when things get overwhelming - a valuable tool in future frustration management.
  3. Problem-Solving Skills: Use these years to introduce the basics of problem-solving. Every "I can't" moment is an opportunity to encourage resilience and creativity. If your child’s anger isn’t too overwhelming, try to encourage them to find a solution and validate them once they do: “I saw that you were frustrated and you figured out a way to solve your problem! Great job!”
  4. Emotional Vocabulary: Young children often have a difficult time expressing their big feelings in words. Helping them name these feelings can foster emotional intelligence, which is essential for frustration tolerance and future success.

Elementary School Years (Ages 6-11)

As children enter the broader social world of school or extracurricular activities, their frustration tolerance is increasingly put to the test. Building their social skills and providing coping strategies can help them manage this new level of complexity.

  1. Social Skills: Good social skills can reduce misunderstandings that often lead to frustration. Empathy, understanding, and cooperation are foundational skills that enable success in future social and professional relationships. If you notice that your child’s frustration is causing conflict in their social relationships, talk through with them how they might notice when they’re getting frustrated and address that feeling before getting upset at a friend.
  2. Transitions: Smooth transitions between tasks and activities can mitigate frustration when your child has to stop a favorite activity or begin an activity they don’t like. Try giving warnings before a transition or having a clear schedule that your child can see. This practice not only aids immediate emotional regulation but also cultivates adaptability, a skill critical for thriving in a fast-paced, changing world.
  3. Mental Health and Self-esteem: Regular emotion check-ins can help boost self-esteem and offer insights into what might be causing their frustration. Such open dialogue fosters emotional intelligence, a key predictor of future success. Encourage them to share by opening up about what makes you frustrated!
  4. Teach Frustration Tolerance: Begin to explicitly teach that feeling frustrated is okay. The key is to learn to manage these feelings effectively and persevere, setting a strong foundation for resilience.

Adolescent Years (Ages 12-18)

Adolescents grapple with increasingly complex challenges that test their frustration tolerance. It's a critical period to consolidate their coping skills and help them build resilience.

  1. Frustration Tolerance: Adolescents need to recognize that everyone encounters obstacles and feels frustrated at times. The real victory lies not in the absence of problems, but in their ability to handle them effectively. Kids this age are old enough to have explicit conversations about this skill, like we do at Prisma. When you notice them persevering to achieve something tough, shout it out!
  2. Perfectionism and Social Media: Today's teenagers often struggle with perfectionism, fueled by unrealistic social media portrayals. Encouraging a balanced view of online content helps foster healthier self-esteem and greater resilience. Remind them that nothing is ever as easy as it looks from the other side of a screen. At Prisma, we like showing this video of Taylor Swift persevering to find the perfect version of a song.
  3. Encourage Meaningful Projects: One of the best ways to build frustration tolerance is to persevere through a long, challenging project. At Prisma, learners have projects that scale up in complexity as they move from middle school to high school. But even if your child attends a school that doesn’t focus on project-based learning, they can still turn their interests into a project. Encourage them to start a business, write a play for their friends to perform, or film and edit video game tutorials to put on YouTube. Anything works, as long as it’s challenging!
  4. Promote Self-Esteem: Foster an environment where they feel valued for their inherent worth, not just achievements. Although we want to encourage perseverance, it is okay to give up sometimes when you truly are spread too thin. Regularly acknowledging their strengths boosts their self-confidence, a crucial element in their journey towards future success.

ADHD & Frustration Tolerance

Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) frequently encounter situations that can result in higher levels of frustration due to certain characteristics of their condition. Here are some factors that can contribute to frustration in children with ADHD:

  1. Impulsivity: Children with ADHD often act on impulse, without considering the consequences. This can result in difficulties with peer relationships, disciplinary actions at school, or repeated mistakes, all of which can trigger feelings of frustration.
  2. Attention Difficulties: These children may struggle to maintain focus on tasks, even ones that are enjoyable. Their difficulty in seeing tasks through to completion can lead to a sense of frustration and lowered self-esteem.
  3. Hyperactivity: The constant need for movement can be disruptive in certain environments such as classrooms, leading to negative feedback from teachers and peers, which in turn can cause feelings of frustration and isolation.
  4. Difficulty Following Instructions: Kids with ADHD may find it challenging to follow through on instructions, especially those that involve multiple steps. When they are unable to meet expectations, it can lead to frustration, embarrassment, and disappointment.

Strategies for Managing Frustration in Children with ADHD

Helping a child with ADHD manage their frustration involves patience, understanding, and tailored strategies that address their unique needs:

  1. Consistent Routine: Children with ADHD often thrive with a consistent routine. Predictability can help reduce frustration by allowing the child to know what to expect in their day-to-day activities.
  2. Clear and Concise Instructions: Because of their attention difficulties, children with ADHD can benefit from instructions that are broken down into manageable steps. This approach reduces the potential for frustration by making tasks more attainable.
  3. Physical Activity: Regular physical activity can be a healthy outlet for pent-up energy and frustration. It can also improve focus and promote a sense of well-being.
  4. Problem-Solving Skills: Teaching these children strategies to solve problems can equip them with tools to handle challenging situations more effectively, thus reducing frustration.
  5. Positive Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement can help children with ADHD boost their self-esteem and motivation. Recognizing and rewarding their efforts, rather than focusing only on the outcome, can help mitigate frustration and promote a more positive self-image.

Autism & Frustration Tolerance

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may experience heightened levels of frustration due to various factors:

  1. Communication Difficulties: Children with ASD often struggle with verbal and non-verbal communication, which can lead to increased frustration. They might have trouble expressing their needs or understanding others' instructions or expectations, creating a frustrating situation that can escalate rapidly.
  2. Social Challenges: Interactions with peers can be another source of frustration for children with ASD. They may find it difficult to understand social cues or norms, leading to misunderstandings or feelings of isolation.
  3. Sensory Sensitivities: Many children with ASD have heightened sensory sensitivities. They may become frustrated with overwhelming sensory input such as loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures, which most people can easily ignore or tolerate.
  4. Rigid Thinking and Difficulty with Transitions: Children with ASD often prefer routines and may have trouble adapting to changes or transitions, big or small. This rigidity can lead to frustration when unexpected changes occur, or when they are unable to execute a task in the way they had envisioned.

Strategies for Managing Frustration in Children with ASD

Just as with any other child, building frustration tolerance in children with ASD involves patience, understanding, and personalized strategies that address their specific needs.

  1. Visual Supports: Since many children with ASD benefit from frequent & clear reminders, visual supports like visual schedules, social stories, or visual cues can help them understand what to expect, thus reducing frustration related to transitions or social interactions.
  2. Teaching Communication Skills: Enhancing the child's ability to express their needs and feelings can significantly reduce their frustration. This might involve speech therapy, using Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), or other augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools.
  3. Sensory Strategies: If sensory sensitivities are causing frustration, consider working with an occupational therapist to identify specific sensory strategies. This could include the use of sensory rooms, fidget tools, noise-cancelling headphones, or other approaches to help the child cope with sensory input.
  4. Clear Expectations: Children with ASD often thrive on routine and predictability. Providing clear expectations and advanced notice of any changes can minimize the frustration associated with unexpected transitions.
  5. Understanding and Patience: Above all, it's crucial to approach the child with understanding and patience. Recognize that their experience of the world is different and can be overwhelming at times. By validating their feelings and offering them consistent support, you can help them gradually build their tolerance to frustration.

Managing Your Own Frustration

Regardless of your child's age, handling their frustration can be a challenge. Model calm behavior and manage your own emotions effectively. You are their role model, and your reactions can significantly influence their emotional development and resilience.

Final Thoughts

The ability to tolerate frustration is not merely about weathering the storm of the moment, but about instilling the persistence, adaptability, and resilience that set your child up for future success. Each tantrum, each "I can't" moment, each difficult transition is an opportunity to strengthen these crucial skills. As parents and caregivers, we are uniquely positioned to guide our children through these big emotions, equipping them with the tools they need for emotional well-being and success throughout life.

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