We all have a window of tolerance. When we are operating outside of that window, we behave badly. This window is widening or shrinking, depending on what happens during the day. When we sleep well, eat well, and get the physical movement that we need, our window is larger. Every choice we make during the day either enlarges the window or shrinks it. Every trauma that a person endures shrinks that window of tolerance. Trauma can be a change in caretakers, moving, a hospitalization, persistent bullying and many other things that make a person feel powerless. The children I work with typically have multiple traumas, and therefore they develop very small windows. Requests that seem quite reasonable can fall outside of that window of tolerance and lead to a child feeling overwhelmed, which looks like defiance. It doesn’t matter how smart or capable the child is, when his little window is full, any request can be too much.
Understanding what fits inside of our child’s window is key to success. Your child may be super athletic, but school is the only thing that fits into his little window. Soccer practice at the end of the day may fall outside of this window, no matter how much the child or you love soccer. Often parents don’t see discouragement; they just see defiance. “Buddy, put on your soccer things. We need to go,” can lead to a meltdown.
For children with a small window of tolerance, homework is almost always outside of that window. Research has shown that homework has no benefit in elementary school and very little benefit in middle school. There is no reason for a child with a small window of tolerance to be doing homework.
Things That Happen When a Child Operates Outside His Window of Tolerance
Children Shut down or Come Out Swinging
This is the child trying to keep himself safe. Everything done outside of his window is designed to keep himself safe. It is self-preservation at its finest. The child knows that he just can’t do something in that moment, so he refuses to do it. He may shut down and start moving in slow motion. It is as if his feet are in concrete, and even his words slow down and become less clear. He may start to cry and whine. Some children move immediately into a fighting stance. They begin to argue and become aggressive with their words and sometimes their actions. Children react when something is outside of their window of tolerance, and their discouragement takes root quickly.
Children Don’t Learn
Nothing done outside a child’s window of tolerance will take root. The lesson you are determined to teach about responsibility, not quitting, determination, etc., will not be effective. It is often when our children are outside of their window of tolerance that we become determined that they will do whatever it is that we have in mind for them to do. You may get compliance, but you won’t get learning. You will encounter the same issue day after day.
In an attempt to keep things within their window of tolerance, children lie to keep themselves from operating outside of that window. If homework is outside of their window, then they say they don’t have any. As they get older, they get more creative. They may plagiarize notes, stuff homework down vents, copy friend’s assignments, etc. This is very confusing, especially for a parent that knows his/her child is capable of doing the assignment. They are capable, but only if they still have some room in their window. Maybe that means they are only capable before 10:00 am. Maybe that means they are only capable after an hour of play outside. There is a big difference between a child who lies maliciously to get someone in trouble and a child who lies to avoid being in trouble. Most of the time when children lie, it is to keep themselves operating within that window of tolerance.
Children Feel Emotionally Disconnected
A child who is operating outside of his window of tolerance usually can’t get back inside of that window without an adult understanding that the child needs help getting back inside of that window. When an adult caretaker fails to “see”, really “see” his/her child, the child develops a sense of loneliness and despair. The child understands that he is often out of control, but there isn’t anyone who makes sense of that for him. There isn’t anyone that “sees” that he is really just trying to keep himself safe. This emotional disconnect often creeps into every relationship, and the child just doesn’t feel like he “fits” or “belongs” anywhere. I often hear things like – “I am not like anyone else. I don’t feel like I belong in this family. I have no friends. No one likes me. I am just different.”
Children Develop Unhealthy Coping Strategies
Instead of learning to engage in authentic communication with their caretakers, children’s only goal of communication is to avoid having to do something outside of their window of tolerance. Instead of parents and children having conversations about authentic fears, interests, and hobbies, their conversations start consisting mostly of confrontation and avoidance. The child becomes an expert at avoiding anything outside of his window of tolerance, no matter how unhealthy his coping might be. I can’t stress the importance of authentic communication enough. I believe that a family can get through anything if it is having authentic conversations. My child coming to me and saying, “I am so discouraged because I can’t do what other kids can do. It makes me want to lie to you about homework because I know I can’t do it,” feels very different than a child stuffing his homework down the vent and insisting, despite the teacher’s e-mail, that he has no homework. This inauthenticity creates rifts that become harder and harder to build bridges across.
This one grieves my heart the most. One’s experience in childhood determines what one believes is possible for his life. Children are so very vulnerable. Everything that happens to children is determined by adults charged with their care. Every adult can shrink or expand that window based on his/her treatment of that child. There is a difference between surviving and resilience. Children are survivors, but they are not as resilient as most people think. They are little people with every emotion intact, but without the power to change their lives in any way.
How Do You Expand the Window of Tolerance?
Show the Child Every Edge and Corner of the Window
Children need to be involved in problem solving for this. Without judgment, notice with the child what activities seem to be outside of that window of tolerance. If at all possible, try to remove those activities. This is hard for parents because these activities are often an important part of the parents’ or family’s identity. Maybe you always thought you would expose your child to music at an early age, or you were a basketball star in college, and your son clearly takes after you in athleticism. These are not easy things to give up, ever. If they were easy to give up, you already would have done it. Show your child the edges of the window when you notice he is pushed over the edge. You might determine with your child that basketball fits into the window on Saturday and Sunday, but not during the week because school takes up all the window space. In doing this, you are empowering your child and expanding the window. Children who feel empowered and understand the edges of their windows feel less stress. Reducing stress increases the size of the window.
Know When to Raise or Lower the Bar
As you practice noticing when your child is operating outside of his window of tolerance, you will start understanding when to raise or lower the bar of expectations. If a child is operating inside of his window of tolerance, he may be easily able to complete a book report from start to finish. If a child is outside of his window of tolerance, he may not even be able to handle hearing about the book report. You need to be able to set the bar for your child and insist on setting it for other adults that are in charge of your child as well. Again, this is not easy. People expect us to make our children behave, not for us to request that adults adjust their demands on our child. It is not the way things are done. It is advocacy. It is what your child needs from you. You may write the teacher an e-mail and say, “I know the book report is due tomorrow, but my child just cannot do a project like this during the week. We will do this on Saturday.” Here is the kicker. It may mean that you write the teacher and say, “My child can’t do any homework. He has nothing left to give at the end of the day and needs his weekends to recover.” You may need a pediatrician’s note for this one.
Remember, the bar is constantly moving. If you fix the bar too low, your child won’t learn. If you fix the bar too high, your child will despair.* You have to move it up or down depending on your child’s needs in the moment. When the stress in the environment is reduced, the window gets larger.
I will just barely touch on this topic, but it is something that needs to be considered for every highly sensitive child. A good Functional MD can determine if your child has food sensitivities, parasites, or vitamin deficiencies. An OT or Developmental Movement Specialist can determine what types of movements may be necessary. Some children require multiple interventions in order to enlarge their windows.
I am not the parent I used to be. I am so thankful for people who showed me where and how to set the bar appropriately for my child. It has not been an easy journey, and I moved down this road kicking and screaming at times. Often every family member sacrifices something in order for that child to stay within his window of tolerance. This journey is hard, but it is worth it. Your child is worth it.
*Karyn Purvis spoke often about knowing where to set the bar for the child. This concept came from her teaching and TBRI principles.