What tips do you have to help my child calm down when they are frustrated or angry?
To master the skill of coping with feelings of frustration or anger, you first have to be able to recognize when you are feeling angry or frustrated. For many children with autism and other developmental disabilities, monitoring how they’re feeling can be particularly challenging. I often hear parents say, “my child goes from 0 to 100!” However, there are likely some clues that your child is actually somewhere in between, but they have difficulty catching themselves in those “in between” moments. I recommend helping your child to monitor their feelings and emotions using a tool, such as a thermometer or a stoplight, that divides levels of frustration into zones – for example, green = relaxed, yellow = frustrated, red = angry. I found this example online – it includes examples of what the child looks like in each zone and has some ideas of coping skills for each zone. Work with your child to create this or a similar tool to help them start to monitor their emotional experience of anger/frustration, using their own words to describe each zone. For older individuals, you may consider using a number system rather than colors or include more advanced language to describe the grades of emotion.

How can I help my child understand and recognize their emotions?
I recommend labeling and modeling emotions in everyday activities and experiences. Model your own feelings by telling your child about times that you feel angry, sad, happy, frustrated. For example, “I am sad that we are not going to Disneyland this summer.” Try doing this when you’re watching a movie/TV or reading a book – pause the activity and ask your child how they think the character is feeling. Keep in mind that in recognizing their own emotional experiences, your child may need help labeling their emotions at first; for example, you could say, “I can see that you are angry right now.” It is important that your child knows that everyone experiences emotions, even negative emotions such as anger. Validate your child’s feelings rather than trying to push them away, and remind them that it is OK to feel sad or angry.
What are some good coping skills for frustration tolerance?
Keep in mind that incorporating the above tools can also help to catch your child before a meltdown occurs. As you start to recognize your child’s triggers, you will help your child recognize these as well. For example, you may notice that your child is starting to get frustrated and say, “it looks like you may be in the yellow zone right now, let’s check your thermometer for what you can do to help you feel better.” Strategies to help when feeling moderately frustrated (“yellow” zone) may include things like taking deep breaths, progressive muscle relaxation, taking a quick break, or using a positive coping statement (e.g., “I can do this”). When your child is very angry (“red” zone), these strategies may not be effective. Instead, they may need to “take space” before they can access their tools to help them calm down. Imagine yourself when you have reached your limit of frustration – I know for me it is very difficult to think rationally and I need to give myself some time. Make sure to practice these strategies regularly even when calm so that it is easier to access them in times of high emotion!

Any additional resources for teaching coping skills?
I like these workbooks by Dawn Huebner — What to Do When You Grumble Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Negativity and What to Do When Your Temper Flares: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Anger.


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This post is part of a multi-part series of articles written by Dr. Jamie Barstein, child clinical psychologist at The Help Group with expertise in working with individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities as well as their family members. 

Contributions to this series were made by Dr. Laurie Stephens, Director of Program Development at The Help Group.