Tips For Adulthood: How To Be Less Impatient With Your Kids

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Last week, I offered suggestions for how not to over-parent. This week’s list addresses a different parenting dilemma:  how not to lose patience with your kids.

Because we’ve all been there, right? Those ready-to-pull-your-hair-out moments are the very stuff of raising children. Your daughter won’t eat a thing at dinner. Your son refuses to practice the piano.  She won’t wear anything in her closet. He’s chronically late. As parents, sometimes we’re tempted to throw our hands up in despair and just…scream.

In our household, the latest please-don’t-let-me-strangle-you issue is bedtime. I recently read about a study which found that what matters when putting your kids to bed isn’t so much what you do (e.g. nursing, telling a story, reading a book) as how you do it. When the mother did those actions while feeling warm and positive, the baby slept well, on average; when the same types of things were done by a mom who was irritable or brusque or distracted, the children were more likely to sleep poorly.

But lately, because my kids have had some trouble adjusting to the new house…the heat…the sunlight…the everything, they haven’t been going to bed easily. Which has made me, well, “irritable and brusque” might be putting it mildly.

That’s not the parent I want to be. So here are five strategies for not losing patience with your kids when they aren’t doing what you want:

1. Tell yourself it’s a vacation. When you’re on vacation, anything goes. You stay up late. You lie in bed. You read novels and eat tons of food. The normal rules don’t apply. That’s precisely what makes it a vacation. Lately, I’ve tried employing the same strategy when my kids won’t go to bed on time. Even though they’re still in school (British schools have a different holiday schedule than the U.S.) I tell myself that they’re already out of school so that I don’t get tense when they’re up past their bedtime. Because if we’re already on vacation, who cares if they’re up late? (I used the same strategy when I took a week off of blogging to send my novel out to agents. I treated the week “off” sort of like a sick day so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about not blogging.) The idea is that by changing your expectations, you change your behavior.

2. Leave the room. Literally. Or the house, if another adult is there. This is a particularly good strategy if you feel yourself losing your temper and don’t want to blow your stack. Go into another room and give yourself a time out. Or go for a walk. The distance itself will help you cool down.

3. Change the incentives. This follows directly from Gretchen Rubin’s 8th Happiness Commandment, “Identify the Problem.” For a long time, my kids used to eat breakfast right when they woke up. That was fine, except that it meant that when we went upstairs to get dressed, something invariably went wrong (usually with my daughter, who’s exceptionally fussy about what she wears). And so we’d end up barely managing to get dressed, brush teeth, brush hair and get out the door to school without a major blow-up. Then one day a light bulb went off. What if they got dressed first? And they wouldn’t be served breakfast until they had their clothes on? Boy, did that minor tweak in our morning schedule change behavior. My son now flies into his clothing so that he can dive into that bowl of cereal. My daughter still takes way longer to get ready, but rarely so long that it makes us late. And I’m much less irritable as a result.

4. Count backwards from a four digit number. This is a new one to me but a friend swears by it. You pick a number – any number, but it has to be four digits  – and count backwards by at least five. It’s sort of like the proverbial “count to ten” rule one often hears with regard to managing children’s tantrums, but apparently the complexity of the numbers and needing to go backwards makes it more effective.

5. Identify with them. Sometimes when I catch myself being frustrated by my kids’ behavior, I try to remember an instance where I behaved similarly in my own childhood to see if – by identifying with them – I can feel less annoyed. This is obviously a tough strategy to implement when you’re in the thick of a conflict, but it can be profitably employed when you sit back and take a long-term view of a situation. My son’s been going through some peer-pressure related stuff of late and I found myself getting exasperated and just wanting to go in and “fix” his social life. And then I remembered a time when my parents expressed dismay about my friendships and how frustrated I’d felt that they didn’t understand where I was “at” at the time. And once I did that, I immediately felt much less impatient with my son.

How about you? What strategies work for you when you want to be less impatient with your kids?

Image: a sleeping kid by mitikusa via flickr under a Creative Commons license

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  • Reply Shelley

    July 21, 2010, 9:55 am

    Though I don’t have kids, I can see how some of these ideas can apply elsewhere. Love your tips for adulthood…as someone 54 who is still struggling to grow up!

  • Reply delialloyd

    July 21, 2010, 10:17 am

    thanks shelley. i agree that they can be useful w/adults-just did the counting one this morning! and no, I don’t think any of us has grown up yet!

  • Reply BigLittleWolf

    July 21, 2010, 6:18 pm

    These are excellent tips. I’ve never tried the first one, but the others have worked for me. And surprise, surprise, they’re still necessary – and effective – when dealing with teenagers.

    Of course, with teens, possession of car keys also tends to have a helpful impact.

  • Reply sonya

    July 21, 2010, 7:59 pm

    i do love the counting one! that would take some good concentration on my part.

    one thing i do when i am raising my voice too often at my kids is start singing what i am telling them. weird? yes. but for some reason they respond better. imagine that.

  • Reply notesfromafrica

    July 22, 2010, 1:47 pm

    My husband is trying out #3 on himself! He’s always late for work. And I’m trying out #1 as the reason he’s always late, is that he goes to bed too late.

    Thanks for a great blog! I came across it one day while looking for something else. A couple of hours later I was still reading and following links. It’s inspired me to start writing too.

  • Reply Daryl Boylan

    July 22, 2010, 3:24 pm

    Oh dear… By far the best strategy whenever I felt I was losing it with anyone was “take a hike”. Sadly, not always possible with young children. So… one strategy that often (not always) worked was to strenuously remind myself that I was sounding like my mother when-not-at–her-best. That, of course, requires taking a few deep breaths before continuing. Good luck with the endeavor.

  • Reply Rebecca K

    July 22, 2010, 3:29 pm

    My kids are all under 5, but I’ve had enormous success asking myself the question “Is my child behaving logically/rationally?” And what do you know, almost all of the time, they ARE behaving in a way that is totally logical for them. This question now pops into my head whenever things start to get heated, and it has really helped me to – as your #5 states – identify with them. It is often so easy to see the logical steps they took once I start looking.

    It’s become an easier way to remind myself that their job, as children, is to learn by doing, and explore, and discover boundaries by pushing. And it’s not my job to stop that process, but to guide and give resistance – not force – when necessary.

  • Reply delialloyd

    July 22, 2010, 8:20 pm

    @Rebecca-that’s a great idea-must try b/c you’re right, they are often behaving rationally (for them). Thx for sharing…

  • Reply Eva

    July 22, 2010, 10:45 pm

    This is excellent, Delia. I especially like “change the incentives.” It’s so logical when you think about it. I’m inspired to use some of these tips with my 80-something father-in-law who is living with us for the summer!

  • Reply Cecilia

    July 23, 2010, 6:56 pm

    I’ve recently discovered #1 too – it helps!

    I agree with Rebecca. It helps me to remember that my son is never doing anything just to be annoying. In his mind he is experimenting, testing, etc. and there’s usually a purpose behind his actions. I also try to ask myself, “Where are we going?” Because many times we don’t need to be somewhere right away, but I’m so Type A about having to keep moving and I forget that really, what’s the big deal if we take 10 minutes instead of 5?

    And this is hard but using humor always helps relieve (my) tension. Today instead of doing my usual nagging to eat breakfast, I asked, “So, what do you want to have, stinky socks, stinky shoes or cereal?” That got us both in a good mood and we were downstairs in the kitchen in no time. Most importantly, I guess I put myself on the same side as my son and it was no longer me vs. him.

    Anyway, sorry for the novel! ;-) (Speaking of which, congratulations on finishing yours!)

  • Reply Elizabeth

    July 23, 2010, 7:32 pm

    My children are definitely not always behaving rationally, sometimes they’re just tired or hungry or not feeling well. It helps to recognize this too. Thats what can make the difference between crying over not getting the red cup at dinner and not crying about it, whatever their rationale for wanting it.

  • Reply Gilberto Giandomenico

    August 24, 2010, 12:01 pm

    hello i really love your blog. this is world class knowledge.

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