Does your child have difficulty managing their emotions?
If so, you are going to find an idea called the Window of Tolerance incredibly helpful.
In my 20+ years as a child psychologist I have used it effectively numerous times to help children improve their emotion regulation.
In this article I will explain the window of tolerance, share my window of tolerance worksheet with you, and give you 15 practical strategies for increasing your child’s window of tolerance.
What’s the Window of Tolerance?
Imagine your child has a “comfort zone” where they handle feelings and stress well. This zone is called their “window of tolerance.”
It’s where they stay calm and can deal with challenges.
If they get too stressed (hyperarousal) or too checked out (hypoarousal), they’re outside this zone.
Helping your child widen this window means they can handle more situations easily and stay calm.
The concept of the “Window of Tolerance” was first introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel, a renowned psychiatrist and brain researcher.
It was developed to describe the optimal zone of arousal where people can effectively manage and respond to emotional and sensory stimuli.
Hyperarousal and the Window of Tolerance
When our body senses danger, it prepares us to face it. This is our sympathetic nervous system at work.
Sometimes, it can become overly active.
This leads to more stress hormones in our bodies. As a result, our emotional responses intensify.
This state is known as hyperarousal.
In other words, our body’s alarm system is too sensitive. It’s outside our “window of tolerance,” where we manage feelings well.
Understanding this can help us support our children better and have empathy for what they are experiencing.
Looks like: Pounding heart, scattered or racing thoughts, butterflies, the urge to run, leave, fight, restlessness, panicking, sweating and difficulty relaxing or sleeping.
The Window of Tolerance Optimal Zone
The brain has specific areas that govern thinking and feeling.
The prefrontal cortex is key for planning, organisation, rational thinking and decision-making.
The amygdala and limbic system region plays a crucial role in managing emotions.
When these areas work in harmony, it creates a balance.
Within this window, we can process emotions and stress effectively. It’s an ideal state for our children’s learning and emotional growth.
Looks like: Calm, flexible, focused, engaged.
Hypoarousal and the Window of Tolerance
In hypoarousal, certain brain areas become less active. These include the prefrontal cortex, which controls alertness and emotions.
At the same time, the “rest and digest” system ramps up. This imbalance leads to decreased energy and responsiveness.
It’s like the body’s systems are too dialed down.
This state falls outside our “window of tolerance,” affecting how we handle stress and emotions.
In certain situations, this lowered arousal can lead to the freeze response, where the child becomes immobilized or numb as a specific defense mechanism.
Looks like: Disengagement, numbness, and dissociation from emotions and external stimuli, accompanied by lowered physiological responses like heart rate and breathing rate.
Download Your Window of Tolerance Worksheet Here
Window of Tolerance Activities
Here are some examples of activities you can do with your child to increase their window of tolerance.
These are all effective strategies that are tried and tested by children and young people who attend my clinic.
- Stay in the Present Moment: Encourage your child to engage in activities that ground them in the present, like a short walk outside, focusing on the different sounds they can hear or the sensations under their feet. This mindfulness practice helps maintain their level of arousal within the optimal zone, making daily challenges more manageable by using calming sensory input.
- Recognize Emotional States: Create a “feelings chart” with your child that includes a range of emotions with corresponding facial expressions or colors. This visual aid can help them identify and communicate their emotional state more effectively, which is crucial for emotional regulation.
- Practise Managing Fight or Flight Responses: Next time your child feels threatened and their flight response is triggered, practice “safe grounding” techniques with them. For example, have them hold a cold ice pack or focus on slow, deep breaths to help them stay in their zone of arousal and manage intense emotions.
- Find the Optimal Zone: Together with your child, identify activities that help them feel balanced, such as colouring, listening to calming music, or doing yoga. These activities can help keep them in their optimal zone of arousal, where they feel both calm and alert.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
- Monitor Arousal Levels: Use a simple arousal scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is very calm and 10 is extremely agitated and on high alert. Regularly check in with your child to rate their current level of arousal. This practice can help them become more aware of their emotional responses and recognize when they need to use calming strategies.
- Educate About the Brain: Use age-appropriate books or videos that explain the brain’s response to stress in simple terms. Understanding the science behind their feelings can empower your child to manage extreme stress more effectively. I recommend The Brain: Our Nervous System by Seymour Simon for ages 6+, or It’s All in Your Head: A Guide to Understanding Your Brain and Boosting Your Brain Power by Susan L. Barrett for ages 10+.
- Share Contact Information: Encourage your child to create a small, personal contact book with email addresses and phone numbers of friends and family they trust. This can give them a sense of security, especially in new or challenging social situations.
- Tune Into Physical Sensations: Practice body scans with your child, where they focus on each part of their body and notice any sensations without judgment. This mindfulness technique can help them become more attuned to their physical state as an indicator of their emotional well-being. If they can spot these sensations and connect them with specific emotions they are more likely to be able to catch hyperarousal symptoms early before they become overwhelming, and take action.
- Practise Healthy Responses: Role-play different scenarios with your child where they might feel intense emotions. Discuss and practice healthy ways to express these feelings, such as taking deep breaths, talking about their feelings, or engaging in physical activity to release energy.
- Address Hypoarousal Symptoms: If your child tends to become withdrawn or “zoned out,” introduce stimulating activities that can gently increase their arousal level. For example, playing with a textured toy, using a stress ball, or engaging in a quick game of tag can help bring them back to a more engaged state.
- Encourage Emotional Understanding and Expression: Set up a creative corner in your home where your child can express their emotions through drawing, painting, or making crafts. You could also encourage them to keep a journal where they can write about their feelings or experiences, which can be a powerful tool for emotional processing.
- Develop Mindfulness Skills: Teach your child simple breathing exercises, like “bubble breathing” where they imagine slowly blowing a giant bubble with each breath. This can help them focus on the present moment and manage their arousal levels more effectively.
- Use Personal Experiences: Share your own experiences with managing difficult emotions, such as a time you felt frustrated and took a moment to breathe deeply or went for a walk to clear your head. This can help your child see how mindfulness and emotional regulation skills apply in real life. It can help you explore your own window of tolerance and how to expand it too! You are teaching your child that if you sit with unpleasant emotions, they do eventually pass.
- Create a Safe Place: Designate a cozy corner in your home with pillows, blankets, and a few favorite books or toys where your child can retreat when they feel overwhelmed and in a state of hyper-arousal. This personal space can serve as a refuge where they can practice self-calming techniques and regain control over their emotional state.
- Celebrate Progress: Create a “bravery board” where you and your child can add a sticker, picture or note each time they successfully use a strategy to manage their emotions or expand their window of tolerance. Celebrating these small victories can boost their confidence and motivation to continue practicing these skills.
Using the Window of Tolerance Worksheet to Widen your Child’s Window of Tolerance: Summary
The window of tolerance is a brilliant concept for helping us to be better able to manage emotions.
The window of tolerance worksheet is a great summary which you and your child can work on together.
I encourage you to share the worksheet with your child, display it prominently in your home, and revisit it regularly.
Using the worksheet and the practical strategies I have suggested, your child will gradually learn to manage intense emotions and begin to adapt to the various demands of life more easily.
Remember though, that building a wide window of tolerance is a process that unfolds over a lifetime.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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