Understanding the Window of Tolerance - Pt. 2
This is the second blog post in a two-part series on windows of tolerance, focused specifically on your window of tolerance as the parent of a child with intense needs and challenges. Part 1 in this series focused on what it means for your child who lives with a brain-based difference and challenging behavioral symptoms to continually experience a narrow window of tolerance. To read Part 1, click here: Understanding the Window of Tolerance, Part 1.
In the opening blog post of this series, you learned that 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. And you also learned about kids with brain-based differences and fragile nervous systems, how their window of tolerance is extremely narrow compared to their same-aged peers, leading them to get shifted outside their window more often. It’s when these children are thrown outside of their own unique “optimal zone” that we see increasing dysregulation reflected through challenging behaviors.
Now, I want to spend some time reflecting on what this concept — windows of tolerance — means for you as the parent of a child who is fragile in this way. So, let’s dive into how this same concept applies to you, and why it’s important to reflect upon it as a parent.
Getting shifted outside our window of tolerance is not a phenomenon limited to kids who live with brain-based differences and fragile nervous systems. It can and does happen to all of us from time-to-time. As a parent who is likely under a great deal of stress each day, if we are not building our resilience and strengthening our nervous system on a daily basis, we are especially vulnerable to this happening.
This is one example of how you might find yourself pushed outside your window of tolerance:
Let’s imagine you didn’t get a great night’s sleep last night because your child, who is of an age where they should absolutely be sleeping through the night (let’s say 11 years old), was awake and coming into your room repeatedly throughout the night. This doesn’t happen every night, but happens frequently enough that you’re not getting sufficient sleep most nights of the week. On this particular morning, you drag yourself out of bed to get the day started, hoping to get your coffee made and a few moments of silence before the rest of the house awakens. Only this hope is short lived, because as you tiptoe down the hallway, your 11-year-old wakes up and screams out for you. Not only is this jolting to your still-half-asleep system, but you’re also panicked that he is now waking up your partner and other kids at this early hour. You immediately hurry into his room, telling him as quietly as you can to, “Shhhhh! You’re going to wake everyone up!” to which he screams, “DON’T SHUSH ME!”
Now the entire house is awake, your partner is rushing out into the hallway demanding to know, “What in the world is going on?!” and just like that, you’re shifted outside your window of tolerance. You feel a mix of exhaustion, tears, and rage rush to the surface, all at once. Navigating your way through another day feels hopeless and impossible. You can’t think clearly, and are reacting (understandably) on emotion alone. And when this happens, your 11-year-old escalates in his behaviors, because he’s now out of his window of tolerance, too.
It’s a familiar, vicious cycle that has taken hold again.
Each person is capable of becoming more resilient.
If you can’t relate to this specific example, I’m guessing you can compare this to another story from your own life that has similar dynamics and themes. Parenting kids with brain-based differences and challenging behavioral symptoms means being at high-risk for being pushed outside your own window of tolerance due to the chronic stress, and in some cases, trauma, that this parenting experience can hold. It also means that your child who has a fragile nervous system is going to have more periods of dysregulation. This is hard on everyone around them, especially you.
It will take a toll on your own nervous system, and if you don’t take steps to buffer against it, your window of tolerance will gradually narrow, rendering formerly minor annoyances or stressors increasingly difficult to manage over time. When we are out of our window of tolerance, we are dysregulated; this is contagious to those around us, most acutely to our child who has a fragile nervous system and needs intense co-regulation to remain regulated themselves.
If this is where you are in your own life currently, I want you to know that there are steps you can take to prevent this narrowing, and even to expand your own window of tolerance.
These steps all center squarely on building resilience each and every day.
Resilience is what allows us to thrive — physically, emotionally and mentally. It allows us to move forward and to parent differently, in the way our child requires. It allows us to move through grief and sadness toward hope, reimagining what our parenting experience might hold. It’s about having more peace and joy, confidence and contentment, within ourselves and in our parenting experience. It is what allows us to expand our window of tolerance when we have mornings (or evenings, or days, and even weeks) like the one described above. Each person is capable of becoming more resilient, but they must begin to take steps, even seemingly small steps, each day.
So where can you begin to build your resilience, to protect against the narrowing of your own window of tolerance? Here are some resilience-building ideas that are backed by research, proven to be effective in gradually nudging your window of tolerance even wider.
Commit to focusing on self-compassion each day. When you hear your voice of self-shame, criticism and blame step in, force it out and move into giving yourself the compassion you deserve.
Move your body gently each day. Stretch in the morning. Do 10 minutes of yoga. Go for a short walk. Just move.
Get some sunshine and fresh air as many days as you possibly can.
Prioritize sleep. Even 20 minutes of additional sleep per night adds hours more sleep to your week.
Visit with a friend who allows you to feel seen and heard, or simply allows you to “be.”
Join a community of uplifting individuals who can provide you with support.
Set healthy boundaries with those around you, to protect your precious energy.
Take moments of your day for prayer or meditation or necessary quiet. Yes, even “moments” of this practice each day make a difference.
Journal for 5 minutes before bed.
Acknowledge the often troubling and mixed emotions that come with this parenting experience. Slowly move through those emotions, even if you need to seek support to do so.
Do something that serves no other purpose than to bring you joy.
I’d encourage you to spend some time this week reflecting on what you require to be in your own unique optimal zone of “arousal,” so that you can function at your very best in your everyday life. It’s going to be different for each one of us, but it’s essential for us to be crystal clear on what it is we require. I am sending you compassion as you take the steps you need to begin caring for and attending to your own window of tolerance.
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.