Distress Tolerance (part III)

In the last installment, I explained that emotions needed to be labeled accurately and validated in order for children to learn how to identify and tolerate what they experience. As children move through their emotional experiences, they begin to understand that they can tolerate other, larger emotional experiences. In other words, they can endure life as life happens.

So what if they don’t learn how to do that?

If children fail to learn that emotional experiences can be tolerated without the world spinning off its axis, what often happens instead is that they learn to avoid. They disengage. They wall themselves off, keep people at a distance, ignore boundaries, and in more extreme cases, they dive into substance abuse or even develop psychosis.

If we, as parents, do that too often or over a long enough period of time, our kids’ social, emotional, and psychological well being gets stunted. This happens because in failing to coach them all the way through their emotions, we inadvertently teach them that emotions are to be avoided. Avoidance can lead to a whole bag of problems like the ones listed above, and while this is not the place to explore those symptoms, this is very much the place to explain how they manifest.


The opposite of validation would be invalidation, and that can take several forms. Perhaps the most obvious is abuse and violence. While discipline is necessary for a healthy upbringing, violence – whether it is from a backhand, a fist, or a switch – is completely unnecessary and invalidates whatever the child is experiencing emotionally.

Yelling and screaming at kids can also invalidate children’s experiences and cause them to avoid expressing them in the future. After all, wouldn’t you avoid sharing something if you got yelled at whenever you did? Chances are pretty good you would not want to risk that pain ever again, and the same goes for violence.


A little less obvious form of invalidation is neglect. Most people’s understanding of neglect is the type where parents fail to provide basic needs like food and medical care, resulting in a call to Child Protective Services. However – and this one might sting for some of you – neglect can also occur when parents are so busy, so consumed with their own lives (or their phones…) that they fail to attend to their children’s emotional needs.

Emotional neglect can happen by overworking, split households, or even deployment. And please know that I imply zero judgment here about anyone who has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, has suffered a divorce, or serves our country. This is a simple observation that the absence of a consistently attentive adult caregiver can – I repeat can – result in invalidation and, as such, emotional avoidance later in life. The result in childhood is something called “parentification” wherein a child assumes many duties and tasks normally reserved for adults who are absent. Again, it is not guaranteed to be a bad thing, but it can result is social withdrawal and lack of intimacy later on.


Finally, perhaps the least recognized form of emotional invalidation is spoiling. The inability to set and/or keep a limit or boundary has potentially the most disastrous consequences because it affects so many people down the road. Primarily, giving in when your child goes into distress when told “no” results in immediate discrediting of the parent(s) doing the giving in. Inconsistency diminishes credibility and without credibility, the kids have no reason to listen or obey; disobedience and defiance runs rampant.

But foremost, the children themselves begin to believe that promises mean nothing. Rules, limits, and boundaries are to be debated and negotiated. And then they start to think that they don’t need to adhere to anything people say; entitlement grows and humility vanishes. If throwing a fit or browbeating works in childhood to get people to capitulate, they believe that it will inherently work in adolescence and adulthood.

This can – again I emphasize can – lead to oppositional behavior up to and including criminal activity and personality disorders. Failing to let even one child endure the distress of limit setting can be harmful for a lifetime and send ripples of pain across thousands of people.

In the next installment I will discuss the importance (and difficulty) of watching children endure and tolerate distress and how to do it appropriately.

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