It’s hard to be patient when your child is turning the color of the tomatoes you just passed because you won’t let them fling produce out of your shopping cart. It’s hard to be patient when your child is taking forever to get ready for preschool or finish their homework or eat their food or do their chores. It’s hard to be patient when your child is being silly, and you need them to be serious. It’s especially hard to be patient when you’re stressed, anxious or overworked, when you’re yearning for 30 minutes to sit down in silence.
When we start unraveling, we’re more likely to snap at our kids and say things we regret. We’re more likely to yell and criticize. We’re more likely to erupt and shatter, sometimes not even recognizing ourselves.
Our patience can wear thin with pressure and big expectations. “The high demands of busy schedules, the pressure to ‘do it all’ and achieve can lead us to become so caught up in daily tasks that the richness of raising children becomes reduced to managing family life, instead of simply being with our children,” said Deniz Ahmadinia, PsyD, a psychologist who specializes in mindful parenting, stress and trauma at the West Los Angeles VA.
Parenting can become just one of many, many tasks on our endless to-do lists, another task to get through, so we can move on to the next thing, she said.
Patience is vital because it’s part of creating a deep, meaningful connection with our kids. “[H]aving a warm, flexible, responsive connection to our children is fundamental to virtually every aspect of parenting,” said Carla Naumburg, PhD, a writer, parent coach and author of three parenting books, including the forthcoming How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids (Workman, 2019).
We also teach our kids how to treat themselves. Naumburg pointed out that it’s especially vital to be patient when our kids are struggling with big, overwhelming emotions. “When we get upset or frustrated and try to rush them through these challenging moments, our kids learn that their feelings aren’t safe, and they don’t learn how to effectively take care of themselves when they feel scared, angry, sad, or confused.” However, when we are patient, calm and kind with our kids in sensitive situations, they’ll learn to respond to themselves with patience, calmness and kindness, too.
Ahmadinia also stressed the importance of being attuned to our kids’ emotions, helping them to soothe themselves and show empathy and compassion. This is critical when kids are young because their nervous systems and the brain structures responsible for emotional regulation are still forming, she said. Young kids don’t have the vocabulary or regulation skills to express themselves, soothe themselves and problem solve challenges—and they might “appear to act out in such moments.”
“Parents serve as models and eventually children adopt the way that they were soothed in times of stress as their own,” Ahmadinia said.
Our patience shows our kids that we have faith and confidence in them. For instance, something as small as being patient while your 5-year-old ties her own shoelaces demonstrates “that we trust the child and believe in her ability to do it herself,” Naumburg said.
The good news is that we can cultivate patience in ways that end up being powerful both for our kids and for ourselves. Below, Ahmadinia and Naumburg shared their tips.
Respect your limits. “[I]f your resources are tapped out, chances are you are going to respond to those around you in a less than ideal way,” Ahmadinia said. She stressed the importance of “finding simple ways to give back to yourself,” which might look like: taking a short walk; savoring the warmth and aroma of your coffee or tea; focusing on your breath for a few minutes (even when you’re in the pick-up line).
Naumburg suggested slowing down and taking deep breaths while repeating a mantra. She often tells herself to “smile, breathe, and go slowly.”
Prioritize sleep. “[I]t’s incredibly hard to be patient when you’re exhausted,” Naumburg said. Of course, being a parent often means you’re short on sleep, because you’ve got a newborn or a baby who’s teething or a child who’s just never been a good sleeper.
But we also shrug off sleep’s importance and choose to sacrifice sleep while scrolling social media (dropping down the rabbit hole for an hour), or doing one more thing, which turns into 10 more things. Reflect on what’s within your control in getting more restful sleep, so you’re not already exhausted before starting your day.
Do one thing at a time. “[W]hen we’re trying to make dinner while scrolling through Facebook and a kid jumps in with a question or request, it’s likely to stress us out and leave us feeling snappy or impatient,” Naumburg said. When can you simply focus on one thing?
Shift from “doing mode” to “being mode.” Doing mode is living inside our minds. We’re with our kids but we’re writing to-do lists in our heads, and thinking about the next place we have to be or the next task we have to perform, Ahmadinia said. It is going through the motions of putting your child to bed, reading their favorite books and saying good night all the while thinking through emails and wondering if you’ll be able to sneak in an episode of your favorite show.
“Being mode means shifting in that moment to simply be with your child, to be aware of what you are doing with him or her, to notice how he or she is responding…Being mode can also shift us from paying attention to the end result to the process, allowing us to fully be present for the small everyday moments that make up the beauty and wonder of being a parent.”
Support yourself. “We all do the best we can with the resources we have,” Ahmadinia said. She urged parents to remember that you’re not alone in your struggles, and to use supportive self-talk. This can simply mean telling yourself: “All parents struggle. I’m doing the best I can” or asking yourself: “How can I support myself through this? What would help right now?” This not only shrinks our own stress, but it, again, models to our kids “how to be kind and encouraging to oneself rather than harsh and punishing.”
Repair. The reality is that we will make mistakes, because we’re human, and that’s perfectly OK. When your patience evaporates, you have the opportunity to repair and reconnect with your child. According to Ahmadinia, this means asking your child how they’re feeling and validating those feelings. It might mean taking responsibility or apologizing for an action that scared or upset your child, she said: “I’m sorry I yelled, I got scared when I saw you run into the street.”
“[A]pproaching conflict in this manner can restore safety and closeness between parent and child, increasing the likelihood that children have a safe haven when they are upset.”
“It’s OK to get frustrated with your kids, it’s OK to be impatient, it’s OK to set limits on problematic behavior, it’s OK to rush them along if you are legitimately in a hurry,” Naumburg said. “That’s real life, and preparing our kids to function in the real world is an important part of parenting.” The key, she said, is to make sure you’re balancing your impatience with “moments of patience and connection.” Because your connection with your child is the foundation for everything.