The art of learning and practicing patience

Author: Emma Langham
Clinical Psychologist

Ever hear yourself uttering “just be patient!” to your child in the midst of a rushed moment, when they seem to be demanding an immediate need be met that is not the family priority right then and there, or when they are whining about being at the shops ‘too long’?

Then wondering why your child doesn’t seem as patient as the child next in line!?

Or noticing the looks from others, wondering if they are inwardly judging your child, or you, for not being more patient? And thinking, should they be more patient at this age?

We tend to classify people in frustrating situations as being patient or impatient, or even people more generally as being a patient or impatient person. However in reality, the vast majority of us have battles with the frustration v’s patience juggle on a daily basis. With young children this can be moment to moment and certainly for countless occasions every day – unless they get to choose how everything works in their world, and you pander to their every whim as their parent. If this is the case, then a child in this circumstance will not only struggle to adapt to a daycare environment, seeming bossy or distressed, but will miss out on the benefits of tolerance and being confident to manage irritability when it does happen.

Teaching patience, and by all means learning patience, are both challenging tasks, and as parents we definitely don’t always get it right.

So what is patience, exactly?

Typically patience is viewed as a person’s ability to withstand a certain irritating emotion; the more you can stand irritation and emotional pressure the more patient you will be (Radwan).

BUT, patience through waiting is not ‘doing nothing’ … waiting can be an ACTIVE process.

So is patience important? And can it be learned ‘later’?

Psychiatrist Judith Orloff explains that patience doesn’t mean being passive or resigning yourself (giving in or giving up), but that patience is power – that patience can be emotionally freeing, by waiting, watching, and knowing when to act. Patience, not frustration, is the key to any door. From a child’s frame – patience might get you what you want, but being frustrated rarely does!

In the short term, patience instilled in children can counteract impulsivity and acting-out. Research by Golsteyn and colleagues (2014) shows that without the skill of patience, impatience predicts a range of subsequent problems in the long term. Since Orloff describes patience as a coping skill, it stands to reason that if a key coping skill is missing from a child’s repertoire of life skills then there will be some fall out later in life.

Early work with the now infamous ‘marshmallow test’ by Walter Mischel revealed that children aged four who could wait a longer time for a larger treat (rather than accepting a smaller immediate treat) scored higher on achievement tests around one decade later. More recently, a large study that followed around 1,000 children from age three to 32, found substantial positive effects of self-control in early childhood on health and wealth as adults. Research studies have shown that the consequences of impatience among youth correlates with their Body Mass Index, their amount of financial savings, and increased likelihood of getting disciplinary reports at school.

When are children ready to learn patience?

You can start showing and teaching patience from a young age. Children first learn by watching, so being mindful of your own behaviours from when your baby is even very young can be key learning for your child.

To give you an idea of how to help your child at different developmental stages, I’ve given you an outline for a few of the key ages when children might be transitioning rooms if already enrolled in daycare, or commencing daycare for the first time.

  • The Center for Parenting Education indicates that at 18 months of age a toddler cannot stand frustration or having to wait really at all;

So early teaching regarding patience is more about agreeing “I know it’s hard (to wait)” and empathising with an authentic sad face, through role modelling your own emotions and behaviours, and showing alternative options to toddlers struggling with frustration such as “this is all I have babe, carrots aren’t as yummy as strawberries but they make a good crunch…listen…”. Distraction at this age can help put a ‘bandaid’ on frustration long enough to often help re-direct them to something else or occupy them temporarily until you can provide them with what they really need (ie a drink or comforter). When at home resist the urge to give in for any reason, any time to their immediate demands. At least some of the time, toddlers need to be able to have brief periods of delayed gratification for things such as toys and entertainment, treats or snacks and your time (ie sharing you with visitors). Don’t feel you need to set this up and play on it though, there are enough incidental moments in every day to practice with, and don’t feel you have to use every opportunity as a learning moment – choose learning moments when you have time to handle the fall out and are in a calm state yourself.

  • By 2 to 2.5 years of age, children can possibly wait up to a few minutes for what they want, and may be able to tolerate slight or temporary frustration.

Since they are beginning to like the idea of pleasing others at this age (Center for Parenting Education), bargaining can become a technique to help delay a 2 year old’s demands for something preferred… such as “I really like it when you can wait a moment, let’s since twinkle twinkle together and then your sandwich will be ready”. Since children at this age don’t have a sense of time or how long time takes to pass, giving them a concrete way of knowing how long things take can help a lot, like counting, the length of a familiar song, or an immediate marker of time (ie ‘by the time daddy gets to the door’, ‘when we get to the car’, ‘as soon as the trolley is at the checkout’) can help them feel they can tolerate the waiting more easily, especially if you give them something active to do during the waiting such as singing, counting, taking a breath or two, cuddling a teddy or you (suggest one of two options). The other pointers such as role modelling, distraction, choosing learning moments for delayed gratification as explained above for younger toddlers all still apply as well but you can use LESS distractions by you doing something, and encourage MORE your child to do something active (but most likely together). Definitely plan when your teaching occasions will be – deciding at the end of a shopping trip with a trolley full of food when you’re in a hurry to get out and only have self-service options available to then suggest your child count to 10 before getting access to a snack you have in the trolley could be a disaster… so either be prepared to tolerate the fall out (ie a tantrum) or rip that packet open and let them start on the snack before it’s paid for (providing it isn’t paid for by weight ;)!

  • By 3.5 years of age, your child may say, “I hate you” when frustrated by limits; can be extremely demanding of adults, and may demand “Don’t look!” “Don’t talk!” “Don’t laugh!” (Center for Parenting Education),

At this age, thinking is well and truly ‘on line’ and you can afford to do some basic reasoning with young children around their options for getting what they want, usually through earning if it is a privilege they want (if you help pick these toys up then I can get your special toy down off the shelf), or by keeping them busy and upping the empathy messages to them yourself such as “how hard it is” waiting when you are “soooo hungry!” for instance. Of great importance is reinforcing how proud/ amazed you are at how clever they were doing x while waiting, or just waiting for anything in general. Any messages to your child about how being calm whist waiting is a preferred behaviour, the more likely you are to see it again! Reactions at this age to not getting what they want immediately can be quite explosive, so again, choose your teaching moments wisely and make sure you are in the right emotional headspace to deal with it; don’t take their behaviours personally – at this age children are fighting hard to get what they want when they want it, that’s their inner drive. They experience an inner conflict to making a choice about understanding what is ‘right’ based on what mum/dad say versus what they feel is best (for them). Generally you will be viewed as being very unfair so don’t get caught up in an argument… this is about teaching them a new skill, not proving a point or being ‘right’. Any small win is a win in the right direction!

  • By 4.5 years of age, children can stick with a task a little longer; emotions are still quite volatile and uncertain (ie laughs or cries easily); they can be more persistent and demanding, but less easy to distract (Center for Parenting Education).

By this age if you have predictable things a child will be wishing for (eg., toys or activities), you can set up “if, then” discussions and even visualise activity time or privileges on a chart, or by using stopwatches or count down clocks such as time timers which I use ALL the time in sessions with kids to help them know how much time has passed. Even a stopwatch on your phone can be a good count down visual to help know how much time is needed before a preferred activity can start (unless it’s using your phone, then that would be too tempting!) or a nonpreferred activity will stop. An ‘if/then’ discussion could look something like “once we finish at the supermarket/ you have had breakfast (the ‘if’), then we can go to the playground or head home to jump on the trampoline, what do you feel like doing today?”. Sometimes offering them a token related to the promise of what they are waiting for can help – such as allowing them to hold on to part of the toy (eg., some Lego) or a related prop, to let them know it will make sure you won’t forget as the parent when it is Lego time. It is important that if impatience escalates into challenging behaviours by hitting out, yelling or throwing objects that you explain that these behaviours are not okay, even when they are feeling frustrated or upset about not being able to have ‘X’. You may have to escort a child who is having a tantrum to an activity they can engage in safely – with you nearby or even joining with you – to pass the time before they have access to something they want (eg., jump on the trampoline, punch the pillow, have a cold drink, help stomp the recycling, help to feed the dog); then when calm and the agreed time has passed, they can access the preferred object or activity.

TIPS in review for learning patience

  1. Remember that for your child this is still a new skill they are practicing and mastering, not one they have practiced thousands of times before like their parents – and I don’t know about you, but I definitely still have experiences where my patience is tested and I fail the test!! Normalising that patience is hard is important;
  2. Children need the opportunity to wait and practice being patient – if their needs are always fulfilled immediately, negative reactions curbed and avoided by offering preferences then they can’t practice, but this also does not mean making them wait for everything all of the time – that is unnecessary and will be felt as you being mean;
  3. Children need the support of a calm, patient adult to learn patience from during learning moments – If you struggle with getting easily frustrated or being impatient and don’t feel able to be patient enough to support your child with big emotions such as frustration, then you will need to develop these skills yourself in order to coach your child. When you do have moments of frustration or feel you could have been more patient, be honest! Saying this out loud is immensely helpful for children to learn from. For instance “Gee I really got a bit too cranky and upset before when that car didn’t let me change lanes…. I could have tried taking a deep breath or singing our favourite song and I think that could have helped. I think I’ll do it now to calm down even more and try to remember next time if something like that happens that it’s going to be ok and I’ll take a big breath first”.
  4. Children will need support to refine their skills through discussion before and after moments of frustration – to develop a plan of options to manage when predicted in advance (such as sharing with visitors, a new baby being born and sharing parent time, being all out of milk until a visit to the shops) and to talk through what went well and reinforce their efforts afterwards. It is important for children to be supported in understanding that frustration is not the intention of the other person, but can occur due to miscommunication, mistakes, or people simply being busy or things being unavailable.

So why don’t you practice being mindfully patient this week yourself, and test yourself out with how well you feel you tolerate frustration or disappointment. Consider what your kids are learning by watching you 🙂

If you need additional support, my team at The Jacaranda Centre are only a call away – check us out online www.thejacarandacentre.com.au or give us a call 4954 8822.

References

  1. Golsteyn, Grönqvist, and Lindahl (2014). Why we should teach our children patience.
  2. Orloff, Judith (2012). The Power of Patience, The importance of patience as a coping skill and how to achieve it. Online
  3. Radwan, M.F (accessed online March 2019) The Psychology of Patience, Know Myself, from www.2knowmyself.com
  4. The Center for Parenting Education, A resource to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children in the LIBRARY OF ARTICLES: Child Development: Child Development by Age – find by following this link

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