I’ll always remember my father’s look of amazement the day my two-year-old daughter melted down during a family reunion at SeaWorld. The gang had mere minutes to scurry across the park for the day’s highlight — Shamu’s afternoon show. That’s when Eva dug in her heels, refusing to walk or even be carried. Recognizing a classic overstimulation meltdown, I calmly waved on the rest of the family and took Eva to a shady spot where she could recover.
“I never knew you had it in you,” my dad marvelled when they returned. Was this the same hot-tempered young woman who, as a teenager, had tested him so?
Like many of us, I discovered that parenting can draw on reserves of patience I never knew I had, except…when it doesn’t. Because it’s also true that my most horrific moments as a mom have featured me losing it — like the time our tantruming daughter tried to wrestle her way out of a car seat as I drove down the highway. My yelling and roughly grabbing her not only increased the craziness, it endangered both of our lives. Where was that saintly patience when I really needed it?
The good news is that parenting experts have solid advice on how we can all maximize our saint versus sinner potential when it comes to being patient with our kids. But they’re quick to add that some kinds of patience can actually prove counterproductive.
Rae Kala’s family had been standing in the restaurant parking lot for 15 minutes. Six-year-old Aminah was still in the car, fiddling with barrettes. “I’m saying, ‘Come on. Wrap it up,’” recalls Kala, of Lasqueti Island, BC. “And she comes back with ‘Remember your patience, Mommy. You told me you wanted me to take care of my hair.’” How, asks Kala, is she supposed to respond to that?
There’s good patience and there’s bad patience, says child development expert Audrey Huberman of Toronto’s Ryerson University. “Good patience involves providing children with time to complete tasks within their developmental abilities,” she explains. This is crucial to their being able to develop what psychologists call “executive function,” the ability to initiate and manage personal activities — with all the normal frustrations that this entails. That means giving children the time to make mistakes, fail and start again. So, yes, take a deep breath when your toddler insists on drinking from a “real” cup and then promptly spills it. And don’t rush in to “help” the kindergartner struggling with snarled tape. Have the patience to let him get it right on his own.
“The trick is to avoid confusing the sensitivity and responsiveness of true patience with hovering or overindulgence,” Huberman explains. And that means setting reasonable limits and calmly enforcing them. So in the case of the hairstyling school-ager, you might try: “You may have another minute to fix your barrette or take it out; then we need to go inside.” In such a scenario, the heart of patience means not losing your temper if your child loses hers when you enforce your set limit.
From another perspective, patience is recognizing that good parenting is more than getting a child to do what you want, says developmental psychologist Leon Kuczynski of the University of Guelph. “It’s recognizing that resistance is normal, that children have their own thoughts on matters.” That doesn’t mean indulgence, Kuczynski hastens to add. “It means really listening or otherwise picking up on what children are trying to communicate.”
This might translate into simply and sincerely acknowledging your child’s frustration when setting those limits. That’s what Heather Bouzane of Calmar, Alta., learned to do when her son Noah, then three, slammed his bedroom door in the face of his one-year-old sister, Grace, knocking her down. “Yelling at him and swatting his bum just made him hysterical,” she recalls. “But later we talked and I explained that I understood he needs his space from her, but he has to be more careful.” That he seemed to understand.
So now that we know the good and bad, how can parents maximize their ability to make those good choices?
On a recent morning in Ajax, Ont., Kristen Moras was preparing to lead a home-schooling field trip when she realized she’d promised to deliver some insects for another mom’s science class. But first, she needed to finish covering her newly sown vegetable garden with topsoil. Meanwhile, her son was lying on the floor dawdling, despite repeated requests to finish his math assignment. “I could hear my voice getting louder,” Moras says.
All this fits with what Huberman calls the number one cause of parental impatience: overscheduling. “Life becomes a race instead of an experience,” she comments. “So give yourself and your children the gift of time.” And remember to include transition time between activities. Kids need it.
See the big picture
On a philosophical note, Kuczynski urges parents to keep an eye on the long term. “Instead of seeing these trying moments as being about your child’s defiance, remember you’re building a relationship of cooperation and trust that will last for decades,” he says. “With this in mind, it’s easier to swallow your frustration and listen before reacting.”
Know your triggers
It also helps to know what shortens our fuses. Lack of sleep? Pretty universal. Conflicts with spouse or boss? Ditto. Then there are those highly individual button pushers…
For Tara Freeman of Richmond Hill, Ont., there’s something particularly grating about the bickering between her boys. “When the two are going at each other and I can’t separate them, that’s when I hear myself yelling,” she says of Connor, seven, and Eric, six.
Knowing your special triggers allows you to anticipate and plan your response, says Huberman. For Freeman, that means reminding herself that she can ask her boys to sort it out and walk away “at least as long as they’re not trying to kill each other.”
For me, there’s something about driving that leads me to short-circuit easily. “Pull off the road,” Huberman urges. “That puts safety first and also teaches your children appropriate car behaviour.” And when possible, avoid packing children into the car during their known “witching hours” (like when they’re sure to be tired or hungry). Like many kids, my daughter’s worst time was from 4 to 6 p.m.
Know the signs
Keep a finger on your emotional pulse. “Many of us have the false belief that our emotions go from one to 10 in three seconds flat,” Huberman notes. “But when we tune in, we can learn to recognize when we’ve gone from irritated to close to losing it.”
Feeling a little hot? Is your voice getting louder? Those are the cues to take evasive action, as in:
Parental time out We’ve heard it before, but sometimes parents need to safely remove themselves from a situation. If you’re dealing with a crying baby, don’t hesitate to put her safely in her crib and walk away for a while. With older children, explain that you need a time out.
As backup, keep a phone list of people you can call when you sense serious overload. By all means, never hesitate to call for help when you sense you might strike or otherwise physically harm a child.
“Sometimes just 15 minutes is all I need to catch my breath and find my centre again,” Bouzane says. “When I can’t get away, sometimes it works to take a deep breath and slowly count to 10 before opening my mouth.”
Reminders and mantras Refrigerator doors have long made great canvases for patience-prompting quotes, from the Serenity Prayer to Hellrung’s Law (“If you wait, it will go away”).
Many of us settle on a favourite internal mantra. “Crying is his only way of communicating with me,” Melanie Miners repeatedly tells herself when soothing her 10-month-old son, Derek, through a night of teething discomfort.
“Sticky notes helped for a while,” says Kala, who admits to being a “red hot chili pepper” by nature. “Then I realized I was going to need these reminders for a lifetime.” She had the word “patience” tattooed on the inside of her left forearm.
The magic funny bone Nothing left in your bag of patience tricks? Huberman recommends humour. A silly face or ridiculous statement can go far to neutralize a patience-taxing standoff, as in “Well, I guess we’ll just have to dye my hair pink and send me to the circus.” If not a laugh, it’s at least good for a tension-breaking moment of stunned silence.
When you’ve lost it… Recovery tips
First, let tempers cool, says Kuczynski. Then apologize for losing your temper and have a talk (age-appropriate, of course). If you’re feeling particularly brave, ask your child for suggestions as to how you both can better handle the situation next time. Similarly, Audrey Huberman, a child development expert at Toronto’s Ryerson University, encourages parents to follow their apology with a discussion about strong emotions and ways to handle them.
Then there are “one-two-three start-overs,” says Lasqueti Island, BC, mom Rae Kala. “We hold hands, close our eyes, and take three slow breaths,” she explains. “It works wonders.”
Play it again…and again…
Young children love repetition and rituals; parents, not so much. Whether it’s a mind-numbing game of Barbies, the fifth viewing of Toy Story, or “Again! Again!” to Goodnight Moon, when is “no way” OK?
“Know your limits,” advises Huberman, herself a veteran of countless readings of The Cat in the Hat. “A happy parent trumps an irritated parent,” she explains. So when you feel your patience wearing thin, just calmly explain that you need a break. “You also want your child to know you too have limits,” Huberman adds. “That’s how we teach social behaviour.”
A helpful script: “I love you — and I’m not OK with playing Barbies any longer.”
Stay in touch
Subscribe to Today's Parent's daily newsletter for our best parenting news, tips, essays and recipes.