Parenthood, in many ways, is a long exercise in patience. From the moment you find out you’re expecting, you’re tasked with waiting patiently — and that task might start to feel more demanding as your baby turns into a kid. Sleep training, potty training, and even just getting your kid ready and out the door for preschool all require the ability to stay calm and collected in frustrating moments. Clearly it’s not easy.
“A lot of people think ‘I’m just not patient, and that’s the way it is,’” says Sarah A. Schnitker, Ph.D, a psychology professor at Baylor University who studies patience. But that’s not exactly the case. Patience is a skill that can be acquired — and one that is extremely useful for parents and everyone else. “You can accomplish your goal faster because you’re able to stay regulated, which allows you to exert more effort,” Schnitker says. “If you’re patient while potty training, you can stay calm when your kid has another accident, and not give up.”
Here are a few simple-but-effective ways to improve your patience in the moment and over time, according to experts.
1. Practice Cognitive Reappraisal
Impatience is often driven by negative or catastrophizing thoughts. You may feel like your toddler is trying to mess up your morning, or that it’s the end of the world when you’re running late or someone cuts you off in traffic. Schnitker says cognitive reappraisal, the practice of realigning your thoughts with reality, can help take the edge off when you’re feeling impatient.
One way to do that: Try to take on a different perspective than your own when you feel that hot emotion. For example, if you’re feeling impatient about your toddler’s constant whining, think about how they might feel when they can’t have what they want (and without the luxury of logical thinking). You can also think about the grand scheme compared to your frustrating moment. Losing five minutes of time right now might be stressful and annoying, but in the big picture, it’s probably not that big of a deal.
2. Regularly Reflect on Hard Moments
It’s not always easy (or even possible) to regain patience in difficult moments, and every parent loses their cool from time to time. To help yourself learn from those mistakes, Schnitker says it’s important to take time to reflect on them. After your kids are in bed, ask yourself how the day went. What was the hardest part of the day, what were you feeling in that moment, and how do you wish you handled it differently? “That way, you get to practice a different way of thinking and decide how to handle things differently in the future,” she says.
3. Use Implementation Intentions
Once you take some time to think about how you want to respond when situations test your patience, it can help to make a plan. Schnitker recommends using “if/when” statements: For example, you could decide, “If my kid has a tantrum when it’s time for bed, I’ll give them this much time to calm down.”
“Planning out ahead what you’ll do in those situations that most frustrate you can help, because you don’t have to figure it out when you’re already frustrated,” she says.
4. Identify Your Triggers
Uncontrollable outside scenarios might play a role in loss of patience, but losing your cool involves internal triggers. Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, PhD, a California-based psychotherapist, suggests making a list of common scenarios that make you more irritable so you can make a plan to cope before the moment you usually lose your patience.
For example, maybe you tend to get more irritable and impatient when you’re hungry. On the days you have to bring the kids to daycare, make sure to eat breakfast or bring a snack in the car. Or maybe you find yourself struggling more with patience when you’re short on sleep. If you can’t sneak in a nap, ask your partner to take over for the morning so you don’t end up snapping at your family.
“Just identifying that something is a triggering situation for you can help you find the coping skills you need to navigate it with a little more ease and grace,” Peck says.
5. Think with Your Purpose
It’s easier to get frustrated when you lose sight of the big picture. When you’re struggling to be patient with your kids especially, Schnitker suggests zooming out and asking yourself some important questions. For example: Who do you hope your kids become? What values do you want to instill in them? What kind of memories do you want them to have of you later on in life? “Connecting with the bigger purpose of parenting, something you’re working toward besides getting your kids teeth brushed and pajamas on at night, can make it easier to deal with daily frustrations,” she says.
You can reflect on your purpose as a parent in the moment or after the fact by processing with your partner or journaling. The important thing is to give yourself a chance to remember your goals as a parent — and how patience can contribute to your bigger purpose of instilling your principles in your kids.
6. Integrate Mindfulness into Your Routine
At its core, impatience means you have a hard time tolerating tough situations. Mindfulness meditation, which teaches you how to exist in the present moment without judgment or evaluation, can help you improve your patience over time.
“A lot of people think mindfulness is about relaxation, and while that might be a byproduct, it’s more about seeing what’s happening and not moving immediately into action,” says Peck. “It helps lengthen the amount of time and space between the activating event and your response.”
Try downloading a meditation app like Headspace or Insight Timer and carving out a few minutes every day to meditate. During meditations, notice what you feel when you’re trying to meditate — maybe you’re wishing the meditation was over or stressed about what’s next — and then bring yourself back to the moment. Over time, your ability to persevere in patience-requiring situations will grow. “You can look at a situation, be curious about what will unfold, and choose how you’d like to respond,” Peck says.
7. Recognize Your Irritation Early
It’s easy to give into irritation in frustrating moments. One way to stop yourself from snapping at someone you care about? Recognize signs of irritation early. As soon as you notice your heart pumping faster or negative thoughts racing when your son’s not putting on his boots or your wife forgot to get something at the grocery store, step away from the situation to collect yourself. “Irritation is often a sign your system is overloaded,” says Peck. Stepping out of the room to take a deep breath or remind yourself that, no, your son isn’t trying to ruin your day might delay your desired outcome. But it’ll be a lot easier to be kind to others in tough moments when you do it for yourself, too.
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