The Relationship Between ADHD and Low Frustration Tolerance


The first cues teachers and parents notice in a child who might have ADHD are typically behavioral. They might move around a lot, talk during class or get distracted often. When ADHD goes undiagnosed, these children are often channeled into behavior interventions instead. Researchers are now paying more attention to difficulties with emotion regulation. These are also common among children with ADHD. 

Frustration can be defined as “an affective response to blocked goal attainment.” We all experience frustration as an emotion from time to time. But some children with ADHD seem to experience this more often than most. They can become easily overwhelmed or appear to overreact to relatively minor issues. 

This article will discuss why many children with ADHD have low frustration tolerance and what you can do to help them.

What’s the relationship between ADHD and low frustration tolerance?

A few different ADHD characteristics can cause children to have a lower frustration threshold. People with ADHD don’t have a barrier that intuitively puts uncomfortable emotions aside while they solve a problem. Constant activity in the “default mode network” makes negative emotions and memories of past failures almost impossible to ignore. This is one reason why some kids with ADHD have trouble regulating emotions or cry out of frustration.

When faced with a frustrating task, children who experience hyperactivity or a combination of inattention and hyperactivity can become irritable. Those with limited impulse control are more likely to show an affective reaction that escalates to anger or even rage. Emotional flooding is also a common experience for people with ADHD, which adds fuel to the fire.

Bottom-up processing versus top-down

Let’s go back to the neural networks that mediate emotional and cognitive activity for a moment. Functional MRI brain scans of children with ADHD have shown distinct profiles of connectivity between parts of the brain — articularly, those that process emotion, attention, behavior and arousal. These correspond to those profiles of hyperactive, inattentive or combined-type ADHD behaviors.

In general, the prefrontal cortex in the top front of the brain manages attention, reasoning and decision-making. Structures in the bottom rear area control emotion, arousal and movement. Most people have a balance of bottom-up and top-down signaling. However, children with ADHD have increased bottom-up signaling. Connections in top-down networks are also underdeveloped. To a child with ADHD, the emotional, impulsive part of their brain that’s concerned with survival is “louder” than the rational part of their brain that controls behavior. 

Ending the frustration cycle

Low frustration tolerance can make it difficult to move past challenging tasks, to say the least. Children with ADHD may ignore tasks that seem unpleasant and frustrating. Or they might procrastinate, focusing on other things until the time has passed. They’re not doing this on purpose, but rather as a type of self-preservation in the absence of regulatory skills they haven’t yet developed. This can snowball into worry, overwhelm and depression. 

Children with ADHD will quit a rigged computer game at a higher rate than neurotypical children. … Who wouldn’t get frustrated in that scenario? One study replicated these results, but with one big difference. Researchers in previous studies rated the children's reactions based on their own observations. But when children self-reported emotional difficulty during a challenging task, there wasn't a significant difference between children with ADHD and neurotypical peers. They were even more likely to quit when they believed their reward depended on their performance instead of finishing the game.

The researchers hypothesized that children with ADHD may not notice their own frustration as much. Or they may tune out the frustrating situation as they decide to quit. The difference could also be in the regulation of the behavioral response rather than in the intensity of the emotion itself. This study aligns with the dopamine hypofunction theory. It supposes that children with ADHD will put less effort into a task if the reward doesn’t seem meaningful. And finally, even when the co-occurrence of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) was accounted for, the patterns persisted.

Some children do “grow out of” their ADHD by achieving a balance between bottom-up and top-down processing. But for others, bottom-up connectivity continues to dominate. For many, medication is necessary to maintain a balance. All children with ADHD can learn to manage their frustration and move forward with clear decision-making — even when emotions are running high. How can they do this? By developing their Executive Function skills

Executive Function skills are life management skills we all need to be effective in planning, initiating and achieving daily goals. Children can learn these skills with the help of an Executive Function coach in time and with the right tools. These include emotion regulation skills, but sometimes seeing a psychotherapist can be a more helpful route.

Which Executive Function skill is your student’s #1 blindspot

Depression and low frustration tolerance

Frustration is a natural but complex affective response that virtually everyone experiences. However, irritability is both a symptom of depression and an associated feature of ADHD. The frustration and procrastination cycle plays a large role in the lives of children with co-occurring ADHD and depression

The frustration and procrastination cycle can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children get overwhelmed with negative emotions while working on certain types of homework. Then, they must deal with the consequences of a bad grade. The same is true for other situations where children with ADHD experience more difficulty than their peers. And because of their overactive bottom-up signals, they may perceive more negative stimuli than other children.

How can I help my child with low frustration tolerance?

The first thing you can do to help your child is empathize with their frustration. Get them connected with professionals for help with medication, therapy and/or coaching. In your day-to-day activities, you can help them accept the intensity of their feelings. When they’re getting frustrated, excited, sad or overjoyed, encourage them to shift their focus to what they’re feeling in their body. Ask them to put a name to their emotions. Then guide them through the cognitive process of investigating those emotions for helpful cues. 

Other life lessons you can help your child learn are how to overcome failure and accept the inevitability of change. You can help them develop resilience and healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety. You can help them build cognitive flexibility by "zooming out” to look at the big picture and consider alternatives. For kids who are resistant to change, building trust and helping them recognize their own progress over time are essential.

Beyond BookSmart Executive Function coaches can help with frustration tolerance

When you find out what thought patterns are behind your child’s low frustration tolerance, you can help them learn the skills to manage it. That’s a lot for a parent to handle on top of their other responsibilities. Working with an Executive Function coach your child is guaranteed to like will help reduce your frustration, too.

Have questions about ADHD or how Executive Function coaching supports kids in school and life? Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an inquiry call.

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