The Patient Parent
Patience: We run out of it, lose it, wish we had more of it. It can make the difference between harmony and discord in family life. It's also a choice you can learn.
Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence. – Hal Borland
Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod. – William Shakespeare
This morning, over boiled eggs and bagels, I was helping my eight-year-old daughter review her spelling words — the ones we worked on last night. When she made the same mistake three times in a row, I found myself saying, “Annie, think! Sound out the word! A-S-T-R-O-N-A-U-T.” Her eyes welled up and she looked panicked and desperate. I didn’t intend to spoil her breakfast or her confidence, but I did.
Why? Overworked and overtired, I lost my patience — easy to lose and hard to find more of, yet so important when it comes to dealing with kids. You told us so yourselves in a 1999 study by York University psychologists Harvey Mandel and Harold Minden for Today’s Parent. Patience topped the list of skills you thought you needed as a parent. Likewise, impatience was the number-one attitude you didn’t want to pass on to your kids.
But is this quality of calm forbearance in the face of crying babies, toddler meltdowns, school-age sloppiness and preteen defiance innate, or can you actually learn to be more patient?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Massachusetts Medical Center and co-author of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, suggests that if we practise mindfulness — the art of bringing our full attention to bear on the moment at hand — we can’t help but cultivate patience. “If you take care of the present moment, then you’re more likely to let future moments unfold without pushing through to them,” he says. We lose our patience with a dawdling six-year-old on the way to school because mentally we’re already sifting through the papers on our desk at work.
For Freda Martin, a psychiatrist and director of The Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto, being patient is often a choice. You choose to pay attention in a very focused way because you know it’s important — for example, waiting by the door while your preschooler struggles to tie his shoes because you know that mastering this skill will help him gain confidence. But, says Martin, “you shouldn’t have to wait forever.” You can scoop up your child and his shoes, says Martin and tell him, “It’s time for us to go now” without losing your patience and getting angry.
That sounds easy, but all of us know it’s not. Markham, Ontario, mom Jennifer Baker, whose daughter Anica is two, doesn’t consider herself a naturally patient person. “I tend to herd people along and I pride myself on getting things done efficiently,” she says. But when Anica was nine months old, Baker remembers slapping her daughter’s hand because she was resisting the car seat. “I shocked myself,” says Baker. “The look on her face! ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry’ didn’t mean anything to Anica. I realized this was my problem, not hers, and I thought, ‘How can I correct this?’”
Like Baker, what we want to avoid is losing control — of the situation and our emotions. “When you lose patience, in all likelihood it’s because you’re feeling thwarted; that feeling is unpleasant and the danger is you’re carried away by it,” explains Kabat-Zinn.
But rather than being carried away, says Martin, we can learn to manage our feelings. Learning to be more patient is partly about adding some hard skills you can use in the moment when you’re about to lose control. It’s also about becoming aware of the ways in which we compromise our patience. We can adjust our expectations or our circumstances — and make the moments we share with our kids a little roomier.
TOO GREAT EXPECTATIONS?
Gary Walters, a professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of Toronto, says our expectations about behaviour can be out of line with what our children are capable of developmentally. Social pressure can up the ante even more. A toddler in an itchy tux at a family wedding isn’t going to be able to sit through the after-dinner speeches happily, and if you expect him to, says Walters, “you end up in a vicious circle of misery. You’ve set yourself up for losing your patience. Your kid loses it, and people look at you. That kind of public pressure is awful.” Instead, have a backup plan, an escape hatch, and give yourself permission to use it. Get up, walk around outside, let him change into some comfy clothing after the photos are over.
Another way we sabotage patience is by poor communication. Karen Elliott of Stouffville, Ontario, has two daughters, Lauren, 11, and Meghan, 15. She says one of the things that used to drive her to the brink was her daughters’ apparent disregard for household order. Tripping over knapsacks in the kitchen all the time made her crazy. “I’d lose it because I couldn’t believe they didn’t see the problem. But then, finally, I put hooks in the kitchen! The girls said, ‘You never told us where they go.’” A small thing, but it made all the difference.
In the Bartolo household, parents Patrick and Michelle have found that slowing their pace to one more suited to Gabriel, five, and one-year-old William, helps them stay calm and enjoy their kids more. Michelle realized Gabriel needed a lot more time to eat his breakfast than she was allowing him on days when he attended daycare. “I would rather get up earlier than get angry,” says Michelle, adding, “Sometimes I would take the toast with us rather than get frustrated. And it’s not the end of the world if he doesn’t eat it. He has a snack at 10 a.m. anyway.”
For his part, Patrick says when he’s doing the laundry or trying to vacuum with two kids in tow, he’s more likely to lose patience because he’s trying to accomplish the task quickly and efficiently. “But if I make it a game, everyone’s happy.”
For Jennifer Baker, thinking ahead about how much patience she can afford when out and about with Anica helps. “Sometimes I plan to meander and dawdle along with Anica — take time to smell the roses, as they say. Other times, when I actually need to get in and out of the mall fairly quickly, she goes in her stroller. She’s not terribly happy, but a juice and snack go a long way.”
STAYING COOK WHEN THINGS HEAT UP
If you react in the moment, you can be carried away by frustration and end up yelling at your kids or, worse, hitting them. You have to learn to recognize the signs that you’re losing it and calm yourself, says Walters. When you’re about to explode, “your nervous system goes into overdrive.” Tension builds and you may feel your hands clenching or hear the timbre of your voice rising. A pause or a break is the first line of defence when this happens. “Back off, breathe or count for ten seconds, decide what to do and then do it,” he says. (In extreme cases, you may want to get help: see “The Sound and the Fury.” below)
Michelle Bartolo says she uses this strategy a lot. “I take a few minutes and give myself a chance to regroup.” By doing so she gets her perspective back. “I remember they’re not going to be this needy forever.”
After a break, you can come back to the situation with a clear head and a reasoned response. With older kids, this strategy can be particularly effective when you’re faced with aggravating repeat behaviour. You come into the kitchen to find, yet again, the remnants of your ten-year-old’s snack attack all over the counter. How do you negotiate a cleanup without going berserk — and hopefully increase the odds that he’ll wipe the counter next time? “Sometimes it’s easier to do it myself,” says Elliott, adding, “The looks and sighs send me into orbit. But I’m learning to say, ‘Stop what you’re doing and clean up the mess now.’”
“It’s not a bad idea to schedule a discussion,” says Joan Parent, who, in addition to her work as parent counsellor for King’s County Child Welfare Agency in Nova Scotia, is mom to five children and stepmom to two more. “Set aside time when you can calmly let your child know how you feel. Leave accusations aside and talk about your feelings as opposed to talking about him being a slob.”
STORMY BY NATURE
Temperament — yours and your child’s — can make being patient more challenging. “I always knew I wouldn’t be a very patient parent,” says Caroline Langill, who with husband Gord is raising three daughters, aged seven to 15, in Norwood, Ontario. “I came from a family where people blew and when the girls were younger, I blew all the time.” Then Nora, now seven, came along, and from the outset, proved to be an intense, volatile, easily frustrated child. “She had temper tantrums until she was six, and I would feel myself being drawn into her anger to the point where I felt I could do her harm.” For Caroline, resisting that impulse meant learning to walk away, and to acknowledge her own feelings. Now, after years of practice, she says, “there’s not much that sets me off.”
While it’s certainly more challenging, parents can learn to stay in control even when temperament ups the emotional intensity, say Walters and Parent. “You have to acknowledge that volatility is a problem, and then try and figure out where it’s coming from,” says Walters. Look at your beliefs: When things heat up, are you worried about losing it, or do you tend to believe your child is deliberately provoking you? The bottom line, says Walters, is understanding that you can change your behaviour, but that takes time and practice, so you still need those in-the-moment strategies — like walking away, as Langill learned to do.
Sometimes choosing patience isn’t a matter so much of defusing frustration or anger. Rather, it’s choosing to pay attention to our kids because we want them to know we value their interests and concerns. When your son starts describing his latest computer game and you’re finding it hard to stay tuned or you’d rather concentrate on dinner, “Listen as long as you can, and try to give feedback,” says Parent. “Then ask if he can stick a pin in the conversation and return to it later.”
Of course, it’s impossible to be patient all the time, and trying to cover real frustration with a veneer of calm doesn’t serve our kids. Parent, Martin and Walters all stress that it’s OK for kids to see that we’re irritated by their behaviour — a preschooler who responds to every request with an emphatic “No,” an eight-year-old who routinely leaves soggy towels on the bathroom floor. But how you express your irritation is what teaches your kids about managing their own feelings and relationships. And, adds Parent, it’s important to pay attention to your impatience because it can be a red flag, a clue that something’s out of whack and needs to be dealt with. If you’re 20 minutes late for work every day, you’re right to be impatient. Freda Martin adds, “If you can’t be patient, you need to figure out what else you can do.”
“It can get to the point where you’re losing it all the time and getting nowhere,” says Karen Elliott. “I had too much on my plate with work and family and church commitments. I’d lose my patience with the kids but not all those other people who were placing demands on me.”
Ouch. Why is it so much easier to be patient with our co-workers and friends than with our kids? Partly, says Martin, it’s because we can. “We have a lot of power in our relationship with our kids — power that can be abused. But if we’re impatient with others, they are more likely to call us on it.”
Still, as Elliott found, losing it all the time with her girls was a no-win situation. “I started saying no more to outside commitments,” she says. “My patience level is higher because my stress level is lower.” After my breakfast-table fiasco with Annie, I got up, walked outside, came back in and sat down. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m tired but I shouldn’t be taking it out on you. You’re trying really hard.” Then I said, “Astronauts need to have two cups of T while travelling in space.” It worked. She spelled the word correctly. And we both felt better.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY
Everyone gets angry from time to time, but when you lose control and your rage spills onto your kids repeatedly, you may need to seek help. Sometimes the best strategy is to call someone — a friend, neighbour or relative — if you’re feeling like your anger is spiralling out of control. Or call the 24-hour Parent Help Line (1-888-603-9100) where trained professional counsellors can talk to you. (They also have information online that discusses anger and stress issues for parents: http://parentsinfo.sympatico.ca.)
You may want to consider an anger-management program as well. Ellie Stewart is the intake worker at the Community Counselling Resource Centre in Peterborough, Ontario. She says these programs teach people how to:
* identify anger triggers;
* reduce the stress that precipitates angry outbursts;
* learn physical ways - relaxation techniques, pausing and breathing,[*]walking away - to bring down the intensity of anger;
* learn to express anger without resorting to blaming, ridiculing or hitting kids.[/list:u]Contact your local family resource centre or speak to your family doctor to find an anger-management program in your community.
Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, HarperCollins, 2000, has helpful information about temperament - yours and your child's - and is full of practical examples of how parents can bring down the intensity.
Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, by Nancy Samalin with Catherine Whitney, Viking, 1991. This book speaks frankly about parental anger and offers excellent strategies and real-life examples.