How does one teach patience? We want our children to learn how to accept or tolerate delays without becoming upset, but how is that obtainable when they have the attention spans of goldfish? Maybe you might become annoyed by repetitive questions like "Are we there yet?" when five minutes ago you answered that question with a definite response. Or perhaps you are short with your children when they meltdown from having to wait, but find yourself becoming enraged while stuck in traffic.
Granted, we could all learn a thing or two about self-control and gaining more patience. Without jumping to the conclusion of becoming a Buddhist Monk or reading up on The Stanford Marshmallow Test, there are easier ways to teach your kids (and perhaps yourself) how to self-regulate emotions and reduce impulsivity by practicing some patience-building techniques.
Encouraging your child to do something physically active while they have to wait, can be a great method of promoting patience. Running, jumping, climbing, or dancing are some examples of activities that can be done while out and about that doesn't require toys or sports equipment. Promoting physical activity during periods that are usually met with restlessness from your child, helps to shift her focus to managing her body to perform the activity. Since being self-aware of her body requires repetition and practice, it will require her to build on her magnanimity to achieve the desired outcome.
Not only does being physically active help promote patience by using distraction and a redirect approach, but by using her gross motor skills to perform the activity it expands her attention span. By using this method as a form of self-discipline from a young age, it could be used to help relieve stress as a child matures into adulthood.
To really understand why your child is struggling with self-regulating those hot emotions when denied what her impulses are wanting her to do; it helps to reflect on our own struggles of being impatient. Comparably, adults don't generally throw a fit when things don't go their way however that is because adults have had more practice and life experiences forming the ability to cope with denial or restraint. The prefrontal cortex is what develops skills such as patience by regulating impulses such as emotions.
In other words, her little brain is still trying to figure out how to not get upset when she is told "No" or "Wait." Providing support by recognizing her effort when she tries or succeeds to not react unfavorably, conditions her behavior with the use of positive reinforcement. By validating and rewarding positive behavior, the more her future responses will likely be pleasant.
The majority of us know that all good things come to those who wait. Whether you believe that phrase or not, the value of delayed gratification can be inspiring and rewarding once you obtain the objective you've been working hard towards. It's important to really encourage your child that having patience and dedication (even if its to be dedicated to waiting, in this case) pays off as it teaches resilience and self-control needed to get through difficult times in life.
So how does a parent teach the value of delayed gratification when a child is young and doesn't quite understand the concept of time? For younger children, it can be helpful for information to be delivered in smaller chunks. For example, keeping a time period in yesterday, today, and tomorrow references make it easier for a child to recall or foresee a scenario. You can also use a timer or calendar as a physical reference to help count down the time or days.
When you are a parent, it can be easy to lose sight that your child is a person of his own, just in a smaller body. We become so focused on trying to change a behavior or enhance skills in our children, yet the most profound thing you can do for your child is to give him a chance to be heard. Perhaps there could be a logical reason as to why he feels he can't wait, but will never be able to express his perspective if he isn't given the chance to communicate. Authoritarian parenting styles, a dated approach more commonly used when our parents were kids, repress a child's self-worth which can surface poorer mental health symptoms later in life.
That isn't saying we have to abide by whatever our child expresses since permissive parenting styles aren't helpful either. To find a happy medium, it can be helpful to allow expression of his perspective but encourage two-way conversation so when he is met with restrictions he understands the reasoning behind it. The conversation can also be used as an opportunity to help him label his emotions, a great coping skill he can use for future stressors.
Your child's most influential role model is you. Mannerisms, personality, and coping skills gradually develop over time by watching your modeled behavior. Of course, that realization can be unnerving as you might wish that whatever she adapts are the healthy characteristics that you portray on your best days. However, how you react, good or bad, can both be valuable depending on your own acknowledgement. The life lesson being: you can't always control the people and world around you but what you can control is your reaction.
Children benefit greatly from being raised in a calm environment with parents who actively practice broadening their emotional intelligence. By being self-aware of your own actions and behaviors, it becomes that much easier to tailor your unfavorable responses to stressors. When you do react out of impulse or emotion, instead of sheltering your child from your 'mess up' you can use the opportunity for owning up to your relapse, and self-direct to correct your behavior. This teaches your child that it's okay to make mistakes, but important to adjust and make corrections.
Developing coping skills is a life-long undertaking and can go many different ways depending on the mechanisms used by your brain when faced by a stressful situation. When asked how to describe patience, one might use the words; calm, relaxed, or at ease. However, to have a calm or relaxed demeanor during a stressful situation, your brain would already have to be familiar with how to react to a stressor with the use of healthy coping skills.
There are so many ways to encourage a child to use healthy coping skills to calm down. Aside from the more obvious exercises such as deep breathing, using words to label feelings, and grounding techniques; you can encourage positive coping skills by encouraging your child to play games such as I SPY or Simon Says. These games ground children to the environment around them, become receptive to hints or wording used by someone else and inspires mindfulness of the body and spatial perception. By making your child more at ease and by using simple yet effective coping strategies, turn-taking for instance which requires patience will become much easier.
Another great way to teach restless children patience while promoting healthy coping skills and the use of distraction, is to keep their hands busy while waiting. The use of fine motor skills, hand dexterity, and hand-eye coordination requires them to focus their attention on what is in hand. That is why fidget tools or materials that require squeezing, pinching, bending, and on are great for reducing tension and anxiety.
The more often the child is soothed, neural pathways in her brain will strengthen which helps to self-regulate feelings like restlessness. A parent can use just about any toy or object that sparks interest for their kid, of course, dependent on age or safety concern for choking on small objects.
After your child undergoes a period where patience is tested, whether it was a successful experience or not, allowing time for your child to rest and reflect inspires mindfulness and healthier perception of self. A method used in positive psychology, reflection lets our brains evaluate how we faced a stressor and what is needed to cope the next time more effectively. This encourages your child to be aware of his or her reactions, behavior, and physical responses and motivates them to make adjustments where needed.
Rest is also a crucial component to correcting behaviors like impatience and impulsivity. Allowing your child's body and mind to relax after a strenuous occurrence teaches them the importance of self-care. Anyone, adults and children, benefit from having their mental batteries recharge.
Questions can be tricky. Parents need to be careful of how they ask questions especially during trying times where the child is already at unease. It could feel like walking on thin ice; if you say the wrong thing, it could make the lead-up to whatever your child is expecting so much worse. However, asking questions (even the hard ones) using a gentle and supportive tone while keeping the questions open-ended, can help him focus on the present rather than future uncertainty.
By asking open-ended questions, it requires more than a YES or NO answer. With your child having to formulate a response, it steals attention away from the body's biological response (like feeling jittery). Once he is calmer, it is that much easier to redirect to another activity previously mentioned.
Each child is different, therefore a parent's expectations of how and how long it will take for the child to learn self-regulation and patience is not ascertained. With so many potential obstacles such as age, learning, developmental, and socioeconomic factors; it's so important to keep this journey 'child-focused'. By setting empathetic expectations based on the needs of your own child, each accomplishment during the child's progress will be much more rewarding for the parent and child.
For a child who has the ability to choose how to practice ways of self-soothing rather than being forced (disciplined) to shut-off hot emotions that are sparked from stressors, will be less likely to resort to risky-behavior or unhealthy impulses later on in life.