“Sorry, you’ll have to wait for that,” we say to our children, a million times a day- according to them. To be honest, it can feel like a million times a day to us too! One thing we love about children is their enthusiasm for life, but it can make waiting very difficult. So how do we teach our children to be patient? We know it’s a skill they will need in life, and learning it can make everything at home feel a little easier too, right? We have some ideas for you to help support your child in building this skill.
First, it’s helpful to understand that patience fits into a bigger skill set of emotional regulation. 'Emotional regulation' is what it sounds like. It’s our ability to manage big emotions and stay in control of our feelings and bodies. As our brains and bodies grow, we gain brain structures and more skills for managing these big feelings. When we are little, we lack skills and brain structures to calm ourselves and understand concepts that help us wait. When you break it down, waiting takes many skills; identifying feelings, understanding time and adult perspectives, problem-solving, and emotional regulation- that’s a lot!
As children build skills for emotional regulation they gain the ability to have patience and wait for things in a calm manner. Until then, kids may have big feelings about waiting. It may sound counter-intuitive, but in order to teach patience, we must first welcome impatient feelings.
When we provide empathy to our children when they are having trouble being patient, it can help our child co-regulate in the moment. This means that we can use our own calm presence, and help children better understand their own feelings and calm down. You may try saying something like, “You really want to play that game with me now, but I have to finish up the dishes, it can be so hard to wait.” Here you have set a boundary, giving your child a chance to practice waiting, labeled feelings, and given empathy to help them feel understood.
Another way to help kids learn patience is to model patience. You may try saying in front of your child, “Oh dear! I’ve been waiting for the mail to come ALL day, I’m so excited for my package to arrive, it can be so hard to wait. Hmm… what should I do to help myself wait?” Modeling your own feelings, and the inner dialogue you have with yourself when you have to wait for something. Show them what you do to cope with those feelings.
Modeling your own struggle with waiting can help normalize these feelings. Children love when we can show them that we struggle with big feelings too.
Children also learn about patience through play and games. Children will naturally engage in play and learning to learn new skills on their own, but caregivers can join in the fun too! If your child struggles with patience, try selecting some games or activities your kids enjoy and practice turn-taking and problem solving when conflicts emerge. These skills will help children build up practice and learn new ways to be patient. It’s way better to learn skills while having fun, right?
We know that children will definitely get many chances in life to practice waiting. As their brains and bodies grow, most children will learn the skills necessary to regulate their emotions while they wait. I guess what we are saying is, if your child isn't showing patience yet, try some of the ideas above, but most of all... be patient.