Patience. It’s something many of us in the Empowering Parents community wish we had more of. In a recent poll, we asked readers about how you respond when your children act out. An overwhelming number of parents expressed the desire to develop more patience with their kids.
But what exactly is patience? For many people, me included, patience means remaining calm, even in the face of a child’s extreme acting out behavior. It means being able to keep your emotions in check so you can respond in the most appropriate or effective way, rather than yelling, cursing, or saying things you will regret later. Honestly, though, is being that patient even possible? I mean, it’s possible some of the time, but is it really an achievable goal?
Every one of us has a limit to how much he or she can tolerate. This doesn’t make us “bad” parents. It makes us normal parents.
Let’s look at some typical situations when parents often wish they could be “more patient.” Your daughter asks you (for the umpteenth time) for something you’ve already said no to, causing you to bellow a “NO!” that resounds through the entire house. You ask your son to pick up his dirty dishes (also for the umpteenth time) and find yourself using a tone of voice that belies any sense of calm or composure. It’s Monday morning and you’re frantically trying to get yourself and everyone else ready and out the door on time. Or you’ve just gotten home after a long day; you’re trying to get dinner on the table while also refereeing a squabble between two of your kids and helping another with his homework.
I think that when you take a step back from these situations you may recognize it’s not really more patience that’s needed. What’s needed is a plan—for how to address your child’s lack of motivation or for dealing with your overly full plate—so that you can be patient. With that in mind, here are four steps can you take towards increasing your ability to be patient.
1. Identify Your Triggers
As specifically as possible, try to clarify when are you most likely to lose your patience, where that is most likely to happen, and with whom are you most likely to lose patience. For example, I tend to lose my patience early in the morning, late at night, or whenever there’s a time constraint. Being tired or hungry can also shorten my fuse considerably. I remember when my kids were younger, I would say as a pre-emptive warning: “Mom’s getting tired, which means Mom’s getting crabby. Remember what happens when Mom gets crabby.” Once you have a clear understanding of your triggers, you can move on to Step Two.
2. Observe How You Respond
Take some time to observe what goes on with you when you are triggered. What happens in your body: increased heart beat, sweaty palms, hard time breathing, feel yourself getting hot? What thoughts do you have: he never does what I ask him to do; she always pushes back when I say no; why am I the only one who has to deal with this? How do you respond in the moment? All of this information is like the pieces of a puzzle—each adds a bit more to the picture and helps you determine your tipping point. My breathing gets shallow when I’m being triggered, and I start to feel my pulse racing as my anxiety level increases. My thoughts veer towards all or nothing thinking, like “why does she always do this when we’re running late?” These are my clues that my patience is starting to wear thin.
3. Develop a Plan
Now that you know your triggers, you can develop a game plan for when they occur. This can include pre-planning (i.e., having transition time between work and home to allow you some down time or establishing clear house rules and expectations, writing those down, and having clear consequences if they aren’t met), planning for in the moment when it’s happening (stepping away from the power struggle, taking space to calm down, doing deep breathing exercises, developing some calming mantras), and also planning for ways you can follow up after things have calmed down. This can include taking time by yourself to review the situation, sitting down with your child and problem-solving his choices, or apologizing if you do happen to lose your patience and respond in a way that is less than effective. Don’t underestimate the power of an apology. Contrary to popular wisdom, it doesn’t lessen your authority with your child. It does role model how to take accountability when your response is less than stellar. It took me a long time to be able to do this because it can feel as if you’re admitting fault and your kid will somehow use it against you. There is always a chance this could happen. In my experience, it has made it much easier for my daughter and I to move past disputes.
4. Build in Time for Self Care
Another important piece to maintaining patience is making sure you’re taking care of you as well as you are taking care of everybody else. We tend to put ourselves on the back burner far too often, to the detriment of ourselves and our children. It can be almost impossible to stay on an even keel when you’re frazzled and running on empty. Taking time to do things you enjoy—activities outside the home, a night out with friends or your significant other, or just taking time to put your feet up and relax—not only recharges your batteries, but also role models self care for your kids. I will admit that this one is still a struggle for me. I find it so difficult to put time aside for me to do the things I enjoy. I’ve gotten better, but it’s still a work in progress.
As odd as it may seem, losing your patience can be a positive too, in that it can help you recognize when you’re stretching your resources too far. If you think about times in the past when your patience has worn thin, you would probably recognize that it usually happens when you’re feeling overwhelmed, overloaded, and possibly underappreciated. Just as a rubber band will snap when stretched too far, so too will a parent’s patience. We are only human after all! Every one of us has a limit to how much he or she can tolerate. This doesn’t make us “bad” parents. It makes us normal parents.
I came across a definition for patience the other day that I believe is much more suitable to what it is a parent does, day in and day out: steady perseverance. Coming back, time and again, trying to be more effective, trying to do our best to help our kids grow and develop into successful adults, that’s steady perseverance. It’s a different, more significant kind of patience: hanging in and doing the hard stuff, even when we feel like giving up.
Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.