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Understanding Distress Tolerance

Understanding Distress Tolerance

Time spent together as a family can be wonderful, but sometimes it can feel challenging, especially when it comes to understanding distress tolerance. A mother of four said, “I feel like each person has such different needs in our family. If one person’s needs are met, someone else’s needs aren’t being met. It feels like when we want everyone to meet their needs simultaneously, everyone separates, and when we have to come together as a family, there are many complaints. We have to negotiate with people to get them to be willing to participate. Will it ever get better?”

My response to her is, “Yes, it is possible to come together as a family and enjoy it when we understand the needs of the individual and the group.”

Families often need to gather together for meals, church, car rides, and vacations before children are ready. Parents across the globe struggle with not having the luxury of time and space to stop and deal with every little need each child has. It can feel overwhelming to address each person’s needs in a family setting, especially when the goal is meeting their need “enough” for them to feel safe and satisfied from an attachment standpoint.

Foundational Principles of Understanding Distress Tolerance

To explain the solution, I need first to explain some foundational principles.

Principle 1: Each Person Needs To Be Able To Perceive Safety as a Person.

Each family member needs to have already done the grounding work to understand their safety bubble and sensory processing preferences. Having this safety principle means I have the tools to control my ability to perceive safety as a person.

Principle 2: Parents Want To Understand the Concept of Distress Tolerance.

Distress tolerance is generally thought to be the ability to allow change without reacting to that change. For example, let’s look at a situation where the phone rings while a child sits at the table. If a child has distress tolerance, nothing happens. If the child does not have distress tolerance, the child starts crying when the phone rings. When people experience lots of repetitive distress, they often develop a low ability to tolerate that event, making it a reactive “trigger.”

Principle 3: Understand Each Person’s Thresholds.

The threshold limit is the specific moment when a person loses the ability to tolerate distress. Before reaching their threshold, a person can maintain control, make choices, and use words appropriately to communicate (i.e., stay in the upstairs brain). After reaching the threshold, a person loses their ability to control their brain and behaviors and cannot use their words appropriately. (i.e., the reactive downstairs brain). Adults generally call this concept a boundary.

Principle 4: Protect the Threshold Management.

Asking people to tolerate too much distress before their brain is strong enough will lead to poor threshold management and can break the brain’s ability to trust. Think of this as boundary and stress management. The goal is not to hit the threshold/boundary and to maintain stress management. Staying under the threshold allows us to stay in control and gain experience in being safe and satisfied. Ideally, this is our happy spot. When achieved well, it may look peaceful, like nothing is happening.

Kallie and Katie‘s Story

Let me tell you a story about my two dogs to help you understand the practical stages of these principles. Kallie Rose is a Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier known for being a strong-willed, stubborn, herding dog. Katie Bell is a Border Collie mix rescue who is reactive to people, noises, and other dogs. Katie is a high-energy dog who likes to herd and chase things as a job. Kallie enjoys playing, being chased, and chasing things as a game.

During the first couple of years that we had them, they appeared to get along mostly but occasionally attacked each other and fought for (what seemed like) no reason. We thought, “Oh, they are such sweet friends who occasionally get on each other’s nerves.” Similarly, when kids are growing up with siblings, they get moody with each other.

Training Classes

When we started taking them to training classes for socialization, we noticed Katie would hide under the chairs or go to the far corners of the room. She would come out for treats but then return to the corner and not play with other dogs. When we tried to take them to obedience class, Katie barked and reacted to everything so severely that she could not participate in group classes.

Kallie wanted to play with all the other puppies but would not come and take treats from us. It appeared that she wasn’t food-motivated and was more interested in exploring the world than paying attention to me or the trainer. The trainer told me I needed to “get her attention” better with better treats. So I gave her chicken and hotdogs for our training class one night, and as long as I had those treats to give her, she paid attention to me. The minute I ran out, she didn’t care about me. Also, after that class, Kallie decided she would no longer be willing to eat her regular dog food and would hold out for the better treats. She refused to eat for three days before she started eating her regular kibble again. (We worked with our trainer and vet during that time so she didn’t starve.) 

Personalities, Behaviors, and Distress Tolerance

I now know that Kallie and Katie both had extremely low distress tolerance, and their threshold was so low that I misperceived their behaviors as “personality” instead of recognizing it as a stress threshold. Things improved significantly when we finally started working with a trainer who understood distress tolerance, threshold recognition, and management.

Parents generally begin to see these behaviors and personalities in their kids when they start going to school. Kids can be similar in how their behaviors tell us when they are experiencing stress. Reading people’s behaviors is a discovery process. When a behavior is truly a personality, it is generally surrounded by peace and contentment. If a behavior is not a personality trait, it will be accompanied by conflict, attitude, and distance in relationships. When in doubt, give time for the behavior to calm down and then choose a relationship with the child to discover what happened.

Coming Together as a Family

Be patient when coming together as a family. It generally takes longer than people think it should. I was ready to have fun with my dogs at the same time long before they had the skills to tolerate each other. This part required a third-party helper.

We had to teach the two dogs that they were safe around each other. Because they had been living with each other, a certain amount of distress triggers had formed. We had to start with each dog having their own training in a safe field they already felt safe working in. (For kids, this is when we use specific TheraPlay times to connect with children.) We then had enough distance between the dogs that they didn’t notice each other and could continue their work.

Over time, each time we trained, we would intentionally shorten the distance between both dogs. We allowed them to notice each other, but the distress was so low that it did not interfere with their training focus during the session. The slow process allowed each dog never to reach her stress threshold during training sessions while learning to have distress tolerance with each other being present during their training. When we had to take both dogs to the groomer or the vet, we ensured they were both rested, fed, and had something to keep their attention so they weren’t tempted to focus on each other and the triggers around them. We also allowed for recovery alone time after the stressful event.

Slowing Down and Using Processing Tools

For kids, this is where sensory processing tools can come in handy. Taking time to slow down and ensure each child has tools to help them during the family activity is vital to a successful family time. Giving space between back-to-back events is helpful. Ensuring each child gets specific one-on-one parenting time regularly to get grounded, check in on stress management, and feel safe is foundationally important.

As a family, if you understand these principles, you can start working towards a family that can enjoy being together. I often hear from parents, “That’s a great concept, but we don’t have time to do all that.” I respond, “You might not have time to stop and wash your clothes either, but if you don’t, you won’t have any clean clothes to wear.” Like a savings account, you sacrifice now to retire later. Kids are the same way. Stop and do the work before pushing through life so that when you live life, it’s a fun one.

© 2024 Christina Chismar. Used with Permission.


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