Distress Tolerance: Activities to Help Adolescents Develop Life Coping Skills

Traumatic events in the home, such as child abuse or neglect, can lead to significant distress in the mind and body of an adolescent.

Bullying at school or by a sibling can leave invisible scars on a child that require special skills and tactics to overcome. Loss and grief cause significant distress in children just as they do in adults.

One way to tell if a child has experienced a distressing situation is by administering the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) questionnaire. This inquires about a wide range of traumas, including emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, someone who abuses substances in the household, a household member with uncontrolled mental illness, aspects of poverty, and other topics.

Each of these events, and others, culminating into a sense of inability to tolerate stressful situations.

How Distress Changes Brain Chemistry

Once a child has endured significant trauma and stress, they may develop a variety of different unhealthy coping mechanisms. When working from the amygdala, or the fear center of the brain, children may make decisions they would not have otherwise made given different circumstances.

The adolescents, who often live in a state of hypervigilance, need to engage in bottom-up approaches to therapy rooted in polyvagal theory. These include techniques like brain spotting, where the child can focus on the memory and disentangling false beliefs they’ve made about themselves as a consequence of that.

Working through painful experiences in this way allows them to reengage their frontal cortex where cognitive processing occurs. Then cognitive behavioral therapies can be implemented as well.

Distress Tolerance

Distress Tolerance is the ability to endure stress-inducing and traumatic experiences without losing cognitive processes. There are a variety of ways to build this skill.

One example includes self-soothing techniques. There are a variety of different ways to self-soothe, including psychologically (through different forms of therapy), physically (through physical activity and establishment of safe environments), and by caring for oneself through activities of enjoyment.

Another skill to foster distress tolerance includes radical acceptance. An example of this would be understanding two seemingly contradictory realities to be accurate at the same time. Yes, you could have lost the match, but that does not mean you did not put forth your best effort in the process. To help adolescents reach this level of acceptance, it is recommended to use art therapy, music therapy, individual therapy, and group therapy.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is one healthy way to cope with stress. When a child is given the opportunity to draw their experience or feelings on a piece of blank paper, they can fully express themselves in the ways necessary to heal.

Art therapy gives them the space to openly process challenging life scenarios even if they do not have the words at the time to describe their trauma. Creativity helps bring to light specific scenarios that might otherwise be left unsaid.

Music Therapy

Music therapy is another healthy way to cope with stress. By listening to songs that help process emotions, adolescents can come to terms with what they are feeling and experiencing.

By playing different instruments, they can form melodic beats that help them cope and process. Songs, music, and dance help revitalize adolescents when they are struggling.

Individual Therapy

By talking through stressful situations with an individual therapist, adolescents come to realizations that they might not have otherwise reached. Through acquiring knowledge about therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviors therapy (DBT), and brain spotting, and then applying that knowledge, clients can create the space they need to heal. Through the establishment of a genuine therapeutic alliance, progress is made.

Group Therapy

By participating in groups with other adolescents, clients can reach a place of empowerment. Within the same age cohort, many people share similar experiences. Through learning tactics to cope with one another, group therapy can help each individual grow.

The Importance of Distress Tolerance

In order to manage stressful situations, each individual needs to be equipped with distress tolerance tools. These tools are developed in art therapy, music therapy, individual therapy, and group therapy settings.

After stressful situations, brain chemistry is changed. Adolescent survivors of trauma tend to have a hyperactive amygdala, the body’s control center for fear. To work through that fear and reestablish safety, a variety of different approaches can be used, including brain spotting.

Then, to help acquire skills to handle stress in the future better, clients can also incorporate cognitive therapies into their treatment regimen. For clients who experience emotional dysregulation, allowing them to practice radical acceptance can make all the difference. By finding a calm internal place that understands two opposing beliefs to be simultaneously true, clients can work through distress and better learn to tolerate it.

At Havenwood Academy, we focus on adolescent women acquiring the skills necessary to take on life’s challenges. We take young women and girls who have experienced significant hardship or duress and struggle emotionally as a result. Havenwood Academy is a safe place for these women to flourish and thrive. From our residential facility to the various techniques that our talented staff uses to engage the clients, we believe in excellent standards of care. Distress Tolerance is a crucial skill derived from Dialectical Behavior Therapy for young women to learn self-regulation over time. If you believe you may be a fit for our program, we encourage you to fill out our easy online assessment today and find out if Havenwood Academy is a good match for you. We want each of our clients to start the path towards healing. To learn more about the benefits of our program, call us today at (435) 586-2500.


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