3 Ways to Help your Twice-Exceptional (2e) Child Build Frustration Tolerance
Frustration is a typical emotional response that arises when a person is prevented from reaching a desired outcome. It is an inevitable part of life. We can all develop skills to help us manage life’s daily frustrations, but the emotional depth and intensity that characterizes gifted individuals make low frustration tolerance a prevalent issue for families of gifted children. Because learning differences and social-emotional difficulties come with additional challenges, this is an even bigger issue for twice-exceptional (2e) minds and their families.
The good news is that 2e children can master the competencies needed to regulate their intense emotions. It all starts with emotional self-awareness.
Developing Emotional Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is the anchor of emotional intelligence and a fundamental competency on which other emotional skills build upon. Emotional self-awareness is the ability to monitor our feelings from moment to moment and pay attention to our internal states including our self-talk and our thoughts about our feelings and emotions. It is about observing ourselves closely and recognizing our emotional, thinking, and behavioral patterns and being able to use that information efficiently to make any necessary changes to better ourselves. It also includes having an accurate sense of our strengths and weaknesses.
Emotional self-awareness is the first step in building strong frustration tolerance skills. Children with strong emotional self-awareness understand the relationship and difference between their emotions, feelings, thoughts, and actions. They are able to recognize when a particular emotion is arising and use appropriate vocabulary to express different feelings and emotions.
Due to their high intellect, many gifted children tend to have an overly analytical approach to life, which can complicate their abilities to sort through their feelings and make sense of their emotions. For this reason, some gifted children need to work twice as hard to develop these skills. Here are three ways to help your twice-exceptional (2e)/ gifted child boost their emotional self-awareness and build strong frustration tolerance skills.
Encourage Healthy Expression
Many parents ask me about de-escalation techniques for calming down a child who is past her tipping point and having a full-blown meltdown, but it may be easier for children to learn techniques to prevent them from getting to that point. A more proactive approach would be to provide children with opportunities to practice expressing their emotions regularly so that they are more likely to find appropriate ways to communicate their frustration when they do become upset.
Emotions are a normal part of life, but there are healthy and unhealthy ways to express them. Encourage emotional expression by talking about your feelings openly in front of your child. Allow your child to see that everyone experiences frustration almost on a daily basis. Be vulnerable in front of your child and actively seek opportunities to model healthy ways to express your frustrations and disappointments.
When faced with an unpleasant incident, remind yourself to use the tools you want your child to learn. Remember that someone is watching you closely and learning from you. Use your behavior to show your child how to manage irritating situations calmly and positively. Be very evident about the steps you are taking to prevent yourself from escalating or reaching your boiling point. You can count to 10 slowly or breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to slow down your breathing and regulate your stress response. For more deep breathing exercises and other techniques to calm down the nervous system, check out the Calm Down Tools Cheat Sheet.
Always provide examples of the language and emotional vocabulary your child can use to communicate his frustrations. Use words that are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age.
If your child does reach his/her boiling point and is having a meltdown, acknowledge and validate their frustration and allow them to process their negative emotions by providing a safe space to calm down. At this point, asking questions or encouraging expression may not be the best idea. Wait until the anger has subsided and your child is ready to talk.
If your child becomes aggressive, gently guide them to a “cooling down” spot or “calm down corner” in your house, if you have one. This should not be a space designated for a time-out, but rather, a safe area where your child can release his anger. If you don’t have such a spot in your home, you can easily set one up and involve your child in the process by designing and building this space together. You may include comforting items such as cushions, pillows, blankets, or stuffed animals. If your child has sensory needs, you can also include sensory activities that can help soothe your child’s frustration.
Once your child has calmed down, it is crucial to address the way they expressed their frustration. Let your child know his/her behaviors and reactions were not acceptable and teach the skills they will need to use the next time they are faced with frustration or disappointment.
Give it a Voice!
Recognizing an emotion is the first step in gaining some control over it. One way to help your child get in the habit of noticing and identifying their emotions is to encourage them to give emotions a voice. This can take various forms depending on your child’s age and developmental stage.
For 2e teenagers, journaling can be a great way to start getting familiar with their feelings and emotional patterns. By regularly recording their thoughts and experiences, children can gain insight into their attitudes and behaviors. They can use their journal to do free-form writing, draw, write poems, or use it in any way that feels comfortable for them.
It is important to encourage your child to forget about grammar or editing when journaling. If your 2e child struggles with writing, they can also use a voice memo or audio recorder instead to document their feelings in a way that doesn’t remind them of their weakness.
Children in preschool and elementary school tend to struggle more with frustration tolerance because their vocabulary for feelings is just emerging. Many young 2e children are also lagging in communication skills and lack the abilities to name and label their feelings and emotions. So if you have a younger child, they will need much more practice in this area. They can use images, pictures, or a feelings chart to help them develop a strong vocabulary to describe their feelings.
Younger children can also give emotions a voice by using funny and memorable names. I’ve worked with children who use names like “Angry Angus,” “Anxious Annie,” or “Sad Sally” when they begin to notice a particular emotion arising in them. Get creative with your child and help them come up with names they will remember using.
By giving emotions a distinct voice, children begin to separate themselves from the emotion. There is a dissociation that allows the child to see that she is not an angry person, but is merely experiencing the emotion of anger. Once children get in the habit of identifying and labeling their emotions, they will start to gain more control over their actions and reactions.
Mapping Emotions on the Body
Emotions can manifest as physical sensations throughout the body. Anger and frustration often trigger physical cues that your child may be able to identify in their body. Most children who struggle with frustration tolerance are not aware of the connection between their emotions and their bodies, so we have to teach them to notice the subtle warning signs that lead to their behavior getting out of control. Encouraging your child to pay attention to these cues can help them recognize when they are becoming angry or upset and give them a chance to interrupt the tension from building up.
Although they are often used interchangeably, emotions and feelings are not the same. Think of emotions as universal, hard-wired responses that create biochemical changes in our bodies. Feelings are mental associations and reactions to emotions and are acquired through personal experience. Understanding this difference can help us gain more control over our emotions and our feelings about those emotions.
“Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theater of the mind.”
~Dr. Antonio Damasio, Neuroscientist
For younger children, you can help them map their emotions in the body by drawing the outline of a person and asking them to point out where they feel their anger, for example. They can use different colors to identify each area and label different emotions. Developing awareness of these physical sensations can help children understand the way they perceive, interpret, and manage strong emotions.
Another way to help your child learn about these physical cues is by giving examples of your warning signs. Share with your child the way you feel in the moments right before your frustration levels rise. For example, you may point out that your heart races faster, your shoulders feel tense, or your neck feels sore. Some warning signs for children may be clenching their fist or feeling other uncomfortable sensations on their chest, stomach, or throat. See if your child can identify any areas where they feel particularly tense when they think about becoming frustrated. Encourage them to identify at least one strategy they can utilize when they become aware of these sensations.
Mapping these physical changes can be a valuable tool for your child when preventing frustration from spiraling out of control. Given this knowledge of where they feel their emotions, they can pause and take a moment to figure out what they need to do to decrease the intensity of these emotions and reverse the frustration cycle.
Be patient. Helping your child build frustration tolerance skills takes time, practice, and discipline, but the benefits go far beyond their teenage years. A twice-exceptional child with strong emotional self-awareness and self-regulation skills can conquer the world!
Day Sanchez is a bilingual school psychologist, education specialist, and social and emotional intelligence coach. She has over eight years of experience working with gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children in public, charter, and private schools in California, Florida, and New Jersey. Her approach draws on social and emotional learning, positive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive behavioral techniques. In 2017, Day left the public education system to help 2e families advocate for their children’s rights. Shortly after that, she founded 2e Minds to provide guidance, support, and resources for 2e children and their families.