What is 'stress tolerance' and why is it important?
Guest content from Dr Diane Harner – co-facilitator of our Courageous Parenting Program.
Helping your daughter to tolerate negative emotions çan feel like an uphill battle.
It is natural to feel distress when we are required to step out of our comfort zone or are faced with uncertainty and challenge. It is a human survival instinct to strive to return to a state of comfort and safety. For example, the uncomfortable feeling of hunger is designed to motivate us to find food to relieve that discomfort.
Similarly feeling cold motivates us to seek warmth; feeling sick motivates us to take care of ourselves. Evolution has taught us to move away from distress.
However, in today’s complex landscape we are surrounded by situations that create feelings of distress (e.g., talking in front of a crowd, standing up for what you want, doing something for the first time), and sometimes we need to be able to sit in these uncomfortable feelings in order to achieve our goals. Our ability to do this is called distress tolerance.
Experiencing uncomfortable negative emotions is unfortunately an unavoidable part of life, and we need to normalise this for our daughters.
During the teen years when her sensitivity to emotions is heightened, we need to help her to be able to sit with and tolerate negative emotions (distress) and move through them. If our daughters aren’t taught to manage emotions in a healthy way, then the neurological pathways that she will need to regulate emotions will not be mapped.
This could then create barriers for her to reach her potential
and pursue her dreams.
Biologically, some people can be more sensitive to negative emotions than others, however
our upbringing and childhood experiences are also key contributors that shape our ability to effectively manage our emotions.
Your role as her parent is critical. You are not only her role model for stress management, but you are also her support when she is in discomfort.
It is true that we have a natural instinct to protect our daughters from harm and upset, however, if we protect her from ALL discomfort rather than supporting her through it, she will not have
the experiences required to develop the distress tolerance she needs.
Furthermore, if she is not able to tolerate negative emotions to some degree, there is a chance she could turn to unhealthy coping strategies in effort to move away from negative emotions and this can have damaging outcomes.
Unhealthy ways of coping can look like:
SITUATIONAL AVOIDANCE that causes her to steer clear of situations and/or people that she
perceives as scary
DISTRACTION OR SUPPRESSION that involves simply ignoring or denying emotions in the hope
they will go away, which will not work long term.
ACTIVELY NUMBING OUR EMOTIONS which usually involves engaging in activities that make the
negative emotions go away e.g., drinking, drug-taking, gaming, excessive study/working
Whilst using these strategies may bring relief in the moment, they don’t represent a sustainable solution and they also deny our daughters the opportunity to experience negative emotions and develop a tolerance for them.
Being able to stay with the emotional distress, even for a little while, gives your daughter the opportunity to reframe her beliefs about the
situation that is causing the distress and alter her perspective. Hopefully, when she is faced with the same or similar situation in the future it will not be as distressing.
But: like with everything, it’s all about moderation. We don’t want her to be completely tolerant of distress either because we want her to be driven to change situations that make her unhappy or are not good for her. We need to aim for a middle ground, one that allows her to sit in emotional discomfort and recognise when she needs to take action to improve her
So, what can you do to support your daughter and improve her stress to tolerance??
1. Help her learn to accept distress. This is NOT about being resigned to being
miserable and is not about wallowing in negative emotions! Accepting distress is
about seeing the emotion for what it is and changing how we pay attention to that
2. Allow the emotion to come. Help her sit with the negative emotion, express it and
then watch it pass. You can help her achieve this state of acceptance by encouraging
her to be in the present moment and notice what the emotion feels like in her body.
Another useful strategy to is to ask her to label the emotion. She might say “I am
very frustrated by this situation” or “this has happened and now I feel very angry.”
3. Ask her to describe what the emotion looks and feels like – for example it might be
“a big heavy rock on her back”. Conceptualising the emotion as something that is
external to herself can make it easier to be with that emotion.
4. Emotions come and go, they are transient. Encourage your daughter to notice how
her emotions come and then fade away. Even observing the passing of time on a
clock and noticing how the intensity of the emotion changes. Lastly, after the emotion
has passed, ask her to recognise that she is ok afterwards.
Building up your daughter’s distress tolerance will absolutely take patience, practice and
persistence but it is one of the most useful life skills that you can help her develop during
We know distress tolerance can be tricky to navigate for parents, which is why Dr Diane Harner and Tanya Meessmann cover this more extensively in the full Courageous Parenting Program.