Reply-turned-post: teaching patience

I wrote this in response to one of the Carnival of Natural Parenting posts (Seeking Patience by Earth Mama), who asked:

My children are healthy, well adjusted and happily bonded to us but they are still children. They are still experiencing all the aches and pains that come from the process of growing up. They have moments when they scream out in anger, lose their tempers and lash out in ugly ways. They will sometimes cry uncontrollably when something frustrates them and shout angrily when they are cross. Sometimes these ‘moments’ seem to run together into a series of many moments, filling an entire day with negativity, frustration and unrest. I find myself, at best, staring flabbergasted, and at worst boiling up in my own swell of afflictive emotion. I believe in teaching through example but sometimes practicing patience is my own biggest challenge and every good intention and all my broad forward thinking evaporates into thin air.

How do you teach a child to be patient?

I replied (with minor edits):

Well, you already know that modeling is probably the best/most effective way — and also quite hard. I’m thinking though that we can also offer them skills to practice patience, although I don’t know at what ages these might be appropriate:

Encourage breathing/centering/grounding: “Hi! You’re getting pretty worked up. Would you like to take a deep breath with me?”

Engage their creativity: “You really want to play with that toy. What do you think we can do while we wait? What about this toy? Or we could hop on one foot!”

Redirect to different ways of expressing themselves: “I can see that you’re upset. Would you like to go scream into a pillow? Or go punch the couch [or any appropriate physical activity]!” (The Boychick, at just 3 years old, will say “I need to go to my [our] room!” and will go spend some time by himself, before coming back for hugs and kisses — because he’s seen me model that behavior when I’m feeling overwhelmed.)

Address the underlying issue: my family uses the acronym HALTTT, because no one copes very well or reacts very patiently when zie is Hungry Angry Lonely Tired Thirsty or needs to use the Toilet. So encouraging them to check into their bodies and figure out why they’re reacting so poorly, and then fix that, can really help. (I do this too; I often find myself snapping at the Boychick in the morning, but then I remember, and tell him, that it’s because I’m hungry and my blood sugar is low and I’ll feel a lot better when I go eat, so how about he get dressed now so we can have breakfast? It usually works, and it gives him a self-care vocabulary.)

Finally, I’d encourage you to accept that not all emotions are particularly pleasant, or calm, and that’s ok too: I want my child to be OK with the times when he’s feeling out of control, when he’s angry, when he’s frustrated, when he’s sad, and to know that whatever he’s feeling right now is ok. That very acceptance of the emotions that we’ve labeled in this society as “negative” can, paradoxically, help dissipate them. For you, too: it’s ok to be frustrated that they’re not more patient! It’s even ok to be frustrated that you’re not more patient with their impatience! Accept what is, as it is, without needing to change it. Only then can we change it.

And a disclaimer: I use these in my life, but I also am so, so far from perfect at any of it, and I lose it over his tantrums and neediness much too often. But y’know what? That’s ok too. I can, and am, changing it, but I don’t need it to happen overnight.

Hey look — I’m modeling patience!

ETA: In a stroke of fascinating coincidence and/or serendipity, at the same time I was posting this, the amazing Kelly Diels was hitting publish on Nice Girls and Nice Guys Finish Middle (Class), on why “nice” isn’t. For anyone wondering why I’d rather the Boychick learn to express even “unpleasant” emotions than learn to appear calm and collected at all times, read that. Good, yes. Kind, yes. Able to assert boundaries, hell yes. But save me from raising a “nice” child!

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13 Responses to Reply-turned-post: teaching patience

  1. It is nearly 1 o’clock so this will not be eloquent (hell, we’ll be lucky if all of the words are spelled correctly). You, my friend, model patience much more often than you give yourself credit. I see you with the boychick (and with K when they are together) and you amaze me. The concentrating on breathing thing has worked somewhat for K since he was about three years old; as with anything else it continues to work better the more we use it. As for the modeling appropriate ways of expressing emotion, that is something *I* really need to work on, so thanks for the reminder! <3

  2. I LOVE the HALTTT idea! It’s such a handy acronym to run down in my head. Now, it’s a semi-old fashioned book, and you have to take some of it with a grain of salt, but I’ve become a huge fan of “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, How to So Kids Will Talk.” The basic theory is that most situations with kids can be diffused if their emotions are acknowledged or given a chance to be expressed. In the listening, we also find that the emotions or causes are not what we might think they are (almost 3 year old child is wanting attention vs. tackling 5 month old for the fun of it or to torture her mama). If nothing else, it gives the mama/adult involved a rubric by which to BREATHE. Example from our household: “You are really mad! You are so mad you are hitting that wall! I am so glad you are hitting that wall and not a person. That is a good choice.” Perhaps next time, a pillow, or we will catch the mad in time for a deep breath to happen first.

    • Leah: I can’t take credit for HALTTT — it was originally HALT, from the 12-step tradition, and then my mom (to my knowledge) added Thirsty and Toilet. I want to figure out a way to add Overstimulated to it, but then it’s not such a simple acronym anymore.

      I’ve gotten recommendations for that book before, but haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. Thanks for bringing it up again.

    • I have it! When your child (or self!) is freaking out, think HALT TOT: is zie Hungry Angry Lonely Tired Thirsty Overstimulated or in need of a Toilet? :D

  3. Thank you. I love HALTTT.

    I find the whinging of my son who Is struggling to wait incredibly anxiety inducing but I have starting singing a song that my husband taught me. All it is, is ‘be patient, be patient, don’t be in such a hurry, when you get impatient I really start to worry’. I can’t remember the orignial tune it’s based on. I’ve found it works quite well as N enjoys my singing (he’s the only one), sining encourages me to calm, and the words remind me of what I need to do.

  4. I really really love your writing.You put into words and provide links to ideas that I can’t articulate.You make me think and I even get to feel a teeny tiny bit smarter when I read your blog and discover new concepts(kyriarchy!).You make it all a little less lonely(and that’s why I’ve always been such a reader ,after all)for a young,new mom.Thanks!

  5. HALT TOT! Will take that. I definitely need it for myself.

    Ever since reading various Carnival of Natural Parenting posts, including the one you referenced and CurlyMonkey’s, too, for instance, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I don’t always deal well with negative emotions in others (seen now particularly with my parenting) and how much I need to work on that. Your paragraph about negative emotions being OK and learning to accept them in myself and my child — maybe if I hear it enough times, it will sink in and I’ll begin to change. Here’s hoping!

    P.S. I’m visiting from Rachel’s Ramblings because I’m sooo behind in my reading and she was kind enough to select some posts for me to focus on. Ha ha!

  6. Hi Arwyn! What a lovely post. I’m not a mom but work with lots of little ones at a local nature center, teaching classes and guiding nature walks and such. I like all of your ideas, but sometimes I find that the total opposite works too. When I run a 2 hour class and a child wants to throw a tantrum, often I just won’t let them. Instead of redirecting their attention, I often explain that it’s not okay to behave the way that they are currently behaving (in the context of a classroom, i.e. focusing everyone’s attention on them and their needs) and make them sit out for a while until they’ve calmed down. Certainly this isn’t the only way, but I remember growing up, no one stopped when I was having a tantrum to distract my attention – I was told to stop, and I was expected to behave because that was what people did. I’m probably explaining this very poorly, but we have lots of wealthy people come through the Nature Center and many of them are homeschooling parents. I’m all for homeschooling, but many of these children are indirectly being taught that everything they have to say it of the utmost importance – I have to disagree. I think kids spend too much time talking instead of listening, and trying to do something instead of observing. As a naturalist, I make it a point to encourage my kids to spend time being quiet and observant. Although a 4 year old is not a 14 year old, I don’t see the problem in expecting a higher level of behavior. Maybe the way I grew up isn’t the norm, but I was never pandered to (my mother worked full time on her own and just plain didn’t have the energy or time), and so (I think) I was always a little bit ahead of the game from my peers. That could have a lot to do with being an only child too, though. Anyway – does that make any sense? I just see a lot of parents catering to their child’s every whim, and the kids end up spoiled and unable to sit quietly during a simple activity during a class. I’ve made multiple kids cry (by accident, of course) simply by explaining that it isn’t the time for stories and they have to be quiet while we’re doing a focused activity. What’s the balance, I wonder?

  7. Pingback: Carnival of Gentle Discipline Wrap Up

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