A General Technique for Increasing Frustration Tolerance


This technique can be used with a variety of activities including homework, chores, or art activities. There are two main components outlined below and followed by examples.


The first component is the use of brief subgoals. Setting a brief goal helps the child focus. In any activity, watch for the child to begin to lose interest, become bored, become distracted, or get frustrated. At that point, set a brief goal that requires the child to attend only slightly longer than he or she initially desires. For a 4 or 5 year old, this may mean a subgoal that can be completed in 15 to 20 seconds. For an 8 or 9 year old, a subgoal that lasts 2 or 3 minutes may be more appropriate. The goal is to give the child brief practice in frustration tolerance without overloading the child by extensive demands.


Whenever possible the child puts in "a little extra effort" or works beyond the frustration point, the second component of the intervention can be used. This is praise-based-on-effort rather than level of performance. Typically, parents brag on a child’s worksheets or art work rather than focusing on the amount of energy the child had to devote. When using praise, acknowledge the amount of effort and point out that the child’s effort paid off (e.g., "You worked really hard and put these extra pieces in the puzzle!"). If you build pride in this extra effort, frustration tolerance will improve.


Homework. If a child is working on a lengthy math assignment and shows signs of boredom, set a goal that requires completion of only a few more problems before taking a short break. This helps minimize distraction and provides a reasonable short-term goal. Next, use limits, encouragement, rewards, or loss of privileges in order to get the child to focus slightly longer. At this point, either positive or negative techniques can be used, depending upon the particular child. The point is encouraging the child to focus slightly longer on the homework and then using praise-based-on-effort in order to build pride.

Chores. If the child is helping to fold clothes and begins to lose attention, the parent can assign a very small number of items to be completed before the child takes a break. This minimizes the frustration and the amount of distraction. Once the child focuses this extra effort, use praise-based-on-effort in order to build pride. This technique can be used even when the child is not successful. The parent can praise the effort, even if the child did not succeed. Any extra pride in effort is likely to improve frustration tolerance and, possibly, attention span.


The most frequent complication with this technique involves angry outbursts by the child when the subgoal is set. Often, the best way to respond is to give the child an opportunity to take a time-out before working. Thus, the choice for the child is either to work on the subgoal or to go to a designated area until they calm down (e.g., "You can finish your homework now or take a time-out then finish it."). However, make it clear that once they are calm, the only choice is to return to work on the subgoal. This provides the child a chance for an outlet for their anger, but it also sets clear limits so that they must eventually complete the goal. This can also help parents limit their own angry lectures. This technique may have the most impact if it is used at least once daily. Look for opportunities involving schoolwork, homework, or play activities. It is important to look for every opportunity to build pride and effort to increase frustration tolerance.

For more ideas, talk with other parents, teachers, school psychologists, or mental health service providers.


Parent-Child Services Group, Inc. 4/99
William Allen, Ph.D., NASP
Permission to use for educational purposes only, with appropriate reference.