Introduction

Patience is a virtue that can be instilled in children. Patience teaches children the value of delaying gratification, a skill necessary for maturity. Patience can help develop the ability to think through and resolve problems; it can counteract impulsivity and acting out behaviors. The value of patience lies in its ability to lead to inner calm and emotional strength of character. Teaching patience by example helps children learn resilience, self-containment, and the ability to self-soothe. These are qualities needed for emotional maturity.

General Tips for Parents on Teaching Patience to Children

Teach by modeling. Refrain from snapping impatiently at your children. Use "no-shaming" techniques to help your child understand that she or he may need to wait or take some time before a need is addressed or request is fulfilled.

Take time to look at the child and listen carefully when she is talking to you. Giving your attention even when you are distracted or busy shows the quality of patience more clearly than words can explain it.

When the kids are demanding you to do something right away refrain from yelling at them to “stop,” or “be quiet,” (or worse.) Instead, explain to the children the reasons you may not be able to fulfill their requests immediately. Match your explanations to the child’s age and level of maturity. Offer the child something to do in the interim, and be sure to return to tending to the child’s request when you say you will. Having your attention at the end of a period when the child must be patient will be rewarding and tend to reinforce the patient behavior.

Work with your kids to resolve problems when they are frustrated with trying to deal with something. Help to trouble shoot and think things through together. This will demonstrate patience by example. If you both get frustrated, suggest taking a breather, when you both get away from the problem for a few minutes. Then come back together to deal with it.

Practice relaxation techniques that prepare you for patience when your children are trying yours. Teach relaxation skills to the children. Little kids love to daydream. You can try a few minutes of quiet time with them to train them to use this as a patience technique.

Teaching Patience to Little Ones

Little ones are impatient by nature. They have short attention spans. This is natural. One way to teach patience to kids is by distracting them for short periods of time, if they are demanding attention. Be sure to come back when you say you will. Your return to attending to them will reinforce the patient behavior.

When my daughter was young she was impatient at bedtime and wanted me to sit with her. Because of my own responsibilities I could not do this. To help increase her ability to be patient, I would come back to check on her every 10 minutes or so until she fell asleep. Often she would be asleep on the first check in.

Stories can help little ones be patient. You can use their dolls or stuffed animals, or toy soldiers to make up storylines about patience. This type of teaching by example can be very effective.

Some parents use the television to keep a child quiet. This may be effective to get the child to leave you alone, but does not instill the true quality of patience. This virtue comes from inside out and not from outside in.

Instill self-esteem in little kids with honest feedback as opposed to empty praise for positive behaviors. The better the kids feel about themselves the more able they will be to hold themselves together with authentic patience when the situation requires.

Teaching Patience to Older Kids and Adolescents

This task will be easier when you have started them young. Many of the same ideas apply such as giving your patient attention and helping children to delay gratification for increasing periods of time, but not extending frustration beyond what is safe or healthy, assuming safety needs are met in general.

As children get older you can explain in words what it means to be patient. However, if you are not patient, that is what they will learn. Your words will carry very little meaning if you are irritable and snappish.

When little Emily lost her favorite stuffed rabbit she was painfully impatient for it to be found. Her mother knew it was in the house, but efforts of all family members had failed to find the bunny. Emily was inconsolable at first, and had trouble falling asleep. Her mother sat with her and normalized her impatience. “It is understandable that you would be impatient because you love to sleep with your bunny. I know your bunny is somewhere here and she will be found. For tonight, let’s find another stuffed animal to be your special friend and we will keep looking for bunny.” This required patience from Emily’s mother. As mother exhibited her own patience with Emily’s distress, Emily calmed down. Eventually the bunny was found.

But when little Julia lost her stuffed squirrel in the woods, it could not be found. Mother had to help her get through her loss, patiently explaining that these things happen to everyone. Mother had to hold the patience for her child until Julia was able to attach to another animal. When that happened, it was time to buy another squirrel.

Special Considerations for Adolescents

If good teaching/modeling has taken place in childhood, adolescents will have some ability to hold themselves together during stressful or difficult situations. Adolescents require a lot of patience while they go through the initial stage of figuring out who they are.

When young Jane was about 15, her frustration tolerance was limited. With a wrong look or word from her parents, she would beat a path to her room, slam the door and rant. Her parents refrained from following her to her room and assailing her character. Each time they patiently waited for her to emerge. Eventually the emerging time became shorter. Eventually, Jane was able stay present and to talk to her parents about her frustration, rather than to run. Her parents’ patient waiting for her each time, and patiently being available to talk rather than telling her what a rotten kid she was, allowed Jane to learn to be patient with herself.

However, when an adolescent is acting out with extreme anger or irritability, or self-destructive behaviors that do not abate, the parent may want to consider the function of the behavior. Is this evidence that there is inherent immaturity and the parent may need to address this with the child? Or might there be some deeper root cause? Remember that professional social workers are equipped to help in situations where chronic and extreme impatience is indicative of a deeper issue. The parent’s patience in dealing with the child’s problems will teach the child the value of patience although the parent may not see that result for some time.

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Bette J. Freedson, LICSW, LCSW, CGP is the author of the "Relax and Learn Seminars: Skills For All Seasons,” a repertoire of workshops based on the principles of effective stress management. In her work Ms. Freedson emphasizes the power of the mind/body connection to improve decision-making, increase effective coping, reduce time wasted in conflict, boost morale and productivity at work, and create greater harmony in relationships. Ms. Freedson practices clinical social work at The Listening Place in Lynn, Massachusetts. Besides maintaining an additional private practice in South Berwick, Maine, Bette is Social Work consultant to Maine School Administrative District #35.