Understanding the Window of Tolerance - Pt. 1
This is the first in a two part series on windows of tolerance. This first post will focus on what it means for your child, who lives with a brain-based difference and challenging behavioral symptoms, to have a narrow window of tolerance. Part 2 will focus on your own window of tolerance, as the parent of a child with intense needs and challenges.
Last weekend, we had extended family over to our house for dinner. These are family members who live close to us, so we see and spend time with them often. They are family members who understand my daughter (who is a teenager, and lives with a serious neurobehavioral condition), from a brain first lens. The gatherings with them are casual, enjoyable, and free of the tension that I know many family get-togethers involve. Yes, I feel grateful for this family and their understanding, especially as it relates to my daughter’s narrow window of tolerance.
So, at this gathering last weekend, after everyone had eaten dinner, the kids went off to the basement to hang out while the adults sat around the dining room table chatting. When it was time for dessert, we called the kids up so they could join us again. My husband dished up bowls of ice cream for them and they sauntered back into the dining room with their bowls of ice cream to find a seat at the table to enjoy dessert. As the other kids found seats wherever they were available, my daughter instantly looked to “her” chair, where she sits for dinner each night, a chair that was currently being occupied by her grandfather. I could see the panic and frustration rise within her almost immediately, followed by her saying, “Pop-Pop, that’s my chair! I need you to move.” There was no: “Please can you move…” or “Would you mind moving?” — really no question at all.
Instead she sounded insistent and demanding.
I was sitting close enough to reach out and touch her arm, saying softly, “Pop-Pop doesn’t need to move. I know that’s where you usually sit, but it’s okay to sit somewhere different.” She responded, “No I can’t!” and stormed out of the room. I followed her out, letting her know how much we’d like her to join us, that I knew it was hard for her to sit somewhere different than she’s used to, but that I knew she could do it and that I hoped she’d consider sitting next to me where there was an open chair. After some momentary reluctance, she returned, sitting in the seat next to me, not looking up, just eating her ice cream quietly. I could see in her body’s tension, and through her deep breaths, just how hard she was working to manage what, in her experience, was truly a stressful situation.
She was working incredibly hard to stay within her window of tolerance.
I gently rubbed her back as we sat there, and after a few minutes leaned over and said, “I’m really proud of you for coming back and sitting somewhere else. I know that wasn’t easy.” I could see her relax a little then, look up, and begin engaging in conversation again.
The window of tolerance is a concept originally developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, to describe the optimal zone of “arousal” for a person to function in everyday life. When a person is operating within this zone or window, they can effectively manage and cope with their emotions.
For individuals like my teenage daughter, who struggle with brain-based differences, it is often difficult to regulate emotions (an executive functioning skill), and the zone of arousal where they can function effectively becomes quite narrow. As a result, making it through the stressors that everyday life throws their way can easily and frequently push them beyond their window of tolerance, where we begin to see challenging behavioral symptoms — things like anger, extreme frustration, short fuse, yelling, aggression, anxiety, panic or shutting down, withdrawing, and being a state of “collapse.”
When an individual is thrown outside of their window of tolerance because they’ve experienced a stressor that is too much for their fragile nervous system to handle, their thinking brain is effectively “offline.”
When I told my daughter that her grandfather did not need to move, and she could find another seat, I knew I was challenging her window of tolerance. Because I have spent years now observing and reflecting on her window of tolerance, how narrow it is, what throws her outside of it, and how to bring her back when she is thrown outside of it, I was confident that — while it would challenge her — she could manage it. It did not surprise me when she stormed out of the room, and it did not surprise me that she was able to return and settle back into the gathering. It also did not surprise me that it took a lot of energy and resilience for her to be able to do all of this. This is what I know after years of tuning into her fragile nervous system, where the boundaries are for her narrow window of tolerance, and what she can manage without being nudged beyond those boundaries.
And while none of this surprises me now, at one point in her life and mine, it certainly would have. Her behavior, back then, may have been seen by me or other family members present as selfish, rude, unreasonable or incredibly immature. That interpretation of her behavior from a behavioral lens would have likely had me reaching for my power in that next moment, instead of leading with empathy, realizing this moment was testing her narrow window of tolerance, and that she needed support from me, not shaming or lecturing.
What happens when someone is thrown outside their window of tolerance?
When an individual is thrown outside of their window of tolerance because they’ve experienced a stressor that is too much for their fragile nervous system to handle, their thinking brain is effectively “offline.” They experience dysregulation (which we witness through their challenging behaviors), with the inability to access the cognitive skills they need to manage the stressor in front of them. This means that when your child is thrown outside of their (likely narrow) window of tolerance, they do not have access to the cognitive skills that are needed to calm down and move through or resolve the stressor. As a parent, your first response may be to talk to them, attempt to reason with them, demand they be more reasonable or insist they calm down. A natural response might involve asking them to reflect on what happened and how they’re feeling. But these cognitive skills (and others) are difficult, if not impossible, for your child to access when they are outside their window of tolerance and their thinking brain is offline.
What Parents Can Do:
Instead of asking more of your child in these moments, I want to encourage you to focus your attention and energy on bringing them back into their window of tolerance. This means taking a step back from your first, visceral reaction (which is usually to reach for power in some way, and try to control) and regulating yourself first. I want to encourage you to reach for connection and lead with empathy (while still being aware of your own regulated state), recognizing that this seemingly small stressor has completely overwhelmed your child and they need your support to work through it.
I want to encourage you to provide your child with co-regulation in whatever way you’ve learned works for them: through physical closeness and touch, through quiet presence, through offering a cold drink or crunchy snack, through providing them with a soothing object or toy, or helping them recall and then use coping skills they’ve learned like deep breathing or listening to music.
Here's the thing: when we help our child stay within their window of tolerance in the midst of a stressful situation, as I did with my daughter last weekend, their resilience builds. Their ability to manage these stressors increases slowly, over time. Their ability to recover from them in a shorter amount of time also increases.
The path to get there is through observation, reflection and then action, using a brain first lens.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.