What you need to know about the Window of Tolerance
Our personal capacity to deal with challenges, changes and other stressful situations affects our ability to function at our best. Similar to adults, children experience fluctuations in their emotions, especially during stressful situations. When emotions are at their peak, children lose the ability to “use their words” to communicate what is happening to them. When we understand what optimal functioning looks like for our child, we can identify physiological and behavioural changes early to provide the support they need. The concept of the Window of Tolerance is a useful method to achieve this.
Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, developed the concept of Window of Tolerance to describe the best state of arousal for an individual to learn, play and relate well to others and themselves. The Window of Tolerance is frequently used in mental health and child development contexts to represent the optimal range of emotional arousal within which an individual can effectively cope with stressors.
Why it’s important
Neurodivergent children, because of their neurology and sometimes the past trauma they’ve experienced, usually have more difficulty in dealing with different types of stress and therefore have a much narrower Window of Tolerance. Having said that, every child is different and what might be overwhelming for one could be within the comfort zone for another.
When we move outside our Window of Tolerance we can become either hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused.
Hyper-arousal – is usually triggered by the fight or flight response when our brains detect danger. Some signs that a child is hyper-aroused include:
- Irritable or angry
- Constantly anxious or in panic
- Easily scared or startled
- Engages in self-destructive behaviour
Hypo-arousal – results from the freeze or flop/drop response when our brain detects danger, but instead of mobilising the body it does the opposite. Some signs that a child is hypo-aroused include:
- Shutting down
- Feeling depressed or numb
- Experiencing exhaustion
- Feeling disconnected or dissociating
The size of our window is not fixed and it can change from day-to-day depending on the support, environment and coping mechanisms we have available.
Think of it like travelling down a road that is wide in parts but narrow in others. On one side of the road the path is rocky and bumpy, sending you out of control, similar to hyper-arousal. The other side of the road is muddy and boggy, stopping you from moving, similar to hypo-arousal, and the middle of the road is safe and smooth. Sometimes the road narrows and it’s difficult to stay on the comfortable part of the road, at other times it simply feels like you are swerving all over.
The good news is that when we have a wider road, we have more space to move through life without getting stuck or being thrown out of control. You can help your child widen their road by:
- Helping them develop better self-awareness – this can include drawing your child’s attention to how their body feels when they experience certain emotions, or talking through the impact of decisions and activities on their wellbeing e.g. do they feel tired at the end of the day and therefore can’t take on anything new, or do they struggle in large groups, etc
- Providing external supports – these can include sensory accommodations, visuals for routines or schedules, or even a buddy that can help them feel safe
- Teaching them strategies for navigating challenges and unexpected situations – this can include breathing exercises, or giving them self-advocating prompts, or working through options for regulating in specific situations
Whatever strategies you use, remember that any skills you teach your child, need to be practised regularly and when they are calm. When skills are familiar they are easier to use at times when they feel dysregulated.
Tips & strategies for using the Window of Tolerance
Build the foundations for wellbeing – Developed by David Rock and Dan Siegel, the Healthy Mind Platter is based on neuroscience, clinical practice, behavioural research, and psychology. It identifies 7 areas which strengthen the brain’s internal connections, strengthens connecting with other people, and improves integration of different parts of the brain.
- Sleep time – restorative sleep is crucial in memory consolidation and learning, and it also allows the brain to recover
- Physical time – strengthen your body with fun physical activities and at the same time strengthen the brain
- Focus time – turn your attention to a task or goal to assist in making deeper connections in the brain
- Time-in – create time for just being, thinking and feeling
- Downtime – give your mind the opportunity to wander and let your brain recharge
- Playtime – unstructured play allows for spontaneous creativity and helps the brain make new connections
- Connecting time – connect with friends and family face-to-face, with nature or with a pet if you have one.
Tune in – take the time to observe your child’s behaviour and emotional cues during daily activities, and record them in the Keywell app. When are they most engaged, calm, or, conversely, when might they be showing signs of distress? It’s all the little things that are specific to your child that contribute to a better understanding of their individual Window of Tolerance.
Create a safe environment – Emotional safety is incredibly important for a child, and for adults. Dr. Stephen Porges’ work emphasises the importance of feeling safe for emotional regulation. Safety can be as simple as providing predictability through routines, clear expectations, and creating a space where your child can express themselves without fear.
Prioritise regulation – Explore and adapt strategies to assist your child in self-regulation. The strategies can be very simple like ensuring that your child has regular sensory breaks in their day and where possible allowing them to engage in activities aligned with their interests.
Validate emotions – Validating your child’s emotions is an important part of connecting and acknowledging your child’s experiences. Whether they are comfortably within their Window of Tolerance or struggling outside it, recognising and acknowledging their feelings builds trust and connection.
Bring them back on the road of regulation – The most important step in helping your child return to their Window of Tolerance is to first ensure you are well regulated yourself. A dysregulated adult cannot calm a dysregulated child.
When fight-flight-freeze-flop/drop has been triggered, the thinking part of the brain is put on standby while the survival instinct takes over. At this point your focus is to help your child feel safe rather than work through the problem, show that you understand them by validating their feelings and not berating them for their choices.
Learn to recognise your child’s state of arousal and select the most appropriate strategies to bring them back to a calm state. When your child is experiencing:
- Hyper-arousal – try simple breathing strategies (star breathing, hot chocolate breathing, 2 quick breaths in through the nose and a long exhale through the mouth), drinking from a straw to focus attention and soothe, star jumps to integrate the two sides of the brain, use a weighted blanket to provide deep pressure, or encourage kicking/bouncing a ball to release energy.
- Hypo-arousal – try strategies that stimulate the senses like using aromatherapy for smell, eating crunchy food to activate taste, shaking a sensory bottle for visual stimulation, walking barefoot for body awareness, or listening to music for auditory input.
To recognise and respect your child’s individual Window of Tolerance can take time and requires you to become more connected and in tune with your child. Do you know what triggers your child? Have you noticed patterns in how they feel/respond/behave? Use the Keywell app to record your observations to keep you in tune with their wellbeing.