top of page

FAKE vs REAL: Frustration Tolerance

Updated: Jun 7

A 2 panel cartoon by Autball.  1: A white box at the top reads: FAKE FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE. A red adult says to a green adult, “So we frustrate them on purpose a bunch, refuse to let them out of the situation, then tell them to breathe and rate the size of their problem while they’re too upset to think straight, until they just get used to feeling frustrated.” In the background is a pink adult and a magenta/purple child, sitting cross-legged and blowing on pinwheels together. The child looks angry and thinks, “Am I performing ‘calm’ right? Because I feel as frustrated as ever and I really just wanna hit something!”  2: A white box at the top reads: REAL FRUSTRATION TOLERANCE. A yellow/gold adult is pushing the magenta/purple child in a stretchy swing and says, “I’m NOT gonna frustrate you on purpose because I know that dysregulation is cumulative, so that would be counterproductive. As we naturally come across frustrating situations, we’ll figure out your triggers, learn to recognize what it feels like in your body before it’s too big to handle, and find the regulation strategies that work best FOR YOU.” The chid asks, “Even if I really just wanna hit something?” The adult replies, “Sure! We can find a safe outlet for that energy!”

A kind of subset of self-regulation skills (which I posted about previously) is frustration tolerance. It’s another popular recommendation for ND kids that sounds like a very worthwhile goal. If your kid is frustrated and acting out all the time, getting them to tolerate frustration better sure seems like it would solve a lot of problems.

Here’s the thing about that: you don’t get better at feeling frustrated by spending more time being frustrated. You just get more fucking frustrated. And just like with the attempts to “teach” self-regulation skills, all you’re gonna get is someone who gets better at pretending not to be frustrated OR someone who lashes out more because you won’t stop frustrating the shit out of them.

Being “easily frustrated” is a problem, yes. But what you’re really looking for isn’t frustration tolerance, it’s frustration management. And that is a team effort, not solely the responsibility of the person who’s always feeling frustrated.

First, you’ll need to lighten their load wherever you can. (In other words, frustrate them less!) Someone who “goes 0-60 at the littlest things” is not actually that upset about the little things. They’re likely just walking around at a 59 all the time and that little thing is all it takes to push them over the edge. You’ll want to look at outside pressures (school, work, chores, siblings, activities, social pressures, behavioral expectations, etc) as well as internal stressors (worries, executive dysfunction, sensory issues, medical conditions/pain, hormonal influences, chemical/nutritional imbalances, etc) and see what you can do something about.

Then you’ll want to learn about co-regulation and how to increase their felt sense of safety. If you’re coming down on them every time they get frustrated, that’s not helping them navigate their big feelings, it’s just making them feel more unsafe and lost in them. They’re probably feeling really out of control most of the time, too, so looking into ways to give them more agency and autonomy (like using collaborative strategies) could help. Additionally, if you find their frustration dysregulating to you, you’ll probably have to take some time to work on your own stuff so you can be the best co-regulator and guide you can be.

Another thing you’ll want to look at is how well they can identify when frustration is coming on. How’s their interoception (recognizing the sensations inside their body)? How good are they at identifying their feelings (alexithymia)? If you want someone to use this or that strategy at the first sign of frustration instead of waiting until it’s too late, but they have no idea what their first signs even are or can’t feel them happening, you’re not gonna get very far. So you may have to step way back and do some sensory integration, interoception and/or feelings work first.

Only after you’ve done the work to de-stress their environment and better accommodate their needs can you even think about expecting them to learn and use frustration management strategies.

Once you’re at that stage, throw out the idea of “tolerance” entirely. It’s 100% okay to simply walk away from a frustrating or stressful situation if that’s the best you can do! It’s okay to quit that game or walk away from that chastising teacher if it means you avoid hitting someone instead. It’s also fine to simply avoid situations that you know will be frustrating. Some people want to push for staying and talking things out and being able to do the thing anyway. And while that would be nice, it is WAAAYYYY out of some people’s reach, so it’s okay to acknowledge that and meet them where they are.

Also, make sure you have more in your toolbox than just breathing exercises and cognitive strategies. For one, you can’t think straight when you’re so far gone you’re melting down and lashing out. Plus, some people really feel the need for a physical release of all that energy, which is why they may hit or get destructive. Obviously, those things are not great, but you won’t change those behaviors unless you meet the sensory/physical needs behind them - and breathing ain’t gonna cut it. Some people will frown on it, but redirecting that energy to hitting  pillows or kicking a ball at the wall IS okay. So is growling or stomping your feet. Maybe breathing exercises or holding on until you can get to the gym will come someday, but again, sometimes you just have to start at “better than what you were doing.”

Finally, remember that brain development has a huge role in all of this, too. You may have to do all this work for years before you see any results, because people can’t do things that their brains and bodies literally don’t have the capacity to do yet. Waiting for things to mature and “come online” will be a big part of this process. But if you’re patient and supportive enough, chances are good that better frustration management WILL come in time.

This is part 2 of a 5 part "FAKE vs REAL" series about the ways harmful practices are being made to sound more appealing through the co-opting of language and how to spot the differences between helpful and harmful approaches.

Part 1 on Neuro-Affirming Practice here

Part 2 on Self-Regulation Skills here

Part 4 on Sensory Desensitization here

Part 5 on Communication Support here



Kelly Mahler for all things interoception.

Collaborative and Proactive Solutions by Dr. Ross Greene

Low Demand Parenting by Amanda Diekman

That need for impact when dysregulated could have something to do with proprioception.

Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page