Waiting Games: Coping Skills for Your Impatient Child

Nobody likes delays, but kids this age have a particularly tough time being patient.
boy sitting on the stairs being punished

Every parent of a preschooler has been there. The tears, the stomping, the meltdowns. All over having to wait for a turn on the slide? Yep. Waiting -- whether at the airport for a flight or for Grandma to come visit -- can be agonizing for 3- and 4-year-olds. But while your child's whining and sobbing is frustrating, experts say it's important not to lose your cool. "Parents need to be patient about their preschooler's impatience," says Jan Drucker, Ph.D., a clinical and developmental psychologist at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York. "Children this age are still developing self-control, which means that tantrums often erupt when they don't get instant gratification." Mix in the fact that they don't have a great grip on time -- being told to wait 30 minutes is too abstract a concept for a 3-yearold to grasp and having to wait a few days can feel like forever -- it's no wonder that kids feel so impatient.

But this doesn't mean you've got to grit your teeth until your child grows out of this phase. You can give her some coping skills so that chilling out and biding her time will be easier on both of you.

Model Good Behavior

The next time you're ready to groan when the shopper in front of you pulls out 40 coupons, play it cool. "If you demonstrate patience even when you feel the most frazzled, your child will watch and learn from it," says Susan Caudle, Ph.D., a child neuropsychologist at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. Focus on staying calm, and take a few deep breaths or do some stretches. Before your kid has a chance to go negative, congratulate yourselves about how awesomely patient you're both being, joke about your situation, or discuss something fun you're going to do once the wait is over, like having a playdate or heading to the library.

Shift Gears

"Preschoolers live fully in the moment, which can make waiting hard. They're thinking about what they want right now, instead of the end outcome," says Dr. Drucker. That's why waiting for a chance to take a photo with the Easter Bunny can be a massive whine-fest. Your child is completely focused on the fact that she's bored, and can't see past that to realize that in five minutes the line will have moved and it will be her turn. But luckily for you, kids this age are easily distracted, so she'll temporarily forget about the long line if you grab her attention with something else.

Stock up on age-appropriate distractions ahead of time to avoid finding yourself with an antsy preschooler on your hands. Tuck a small pack of crayons, some stickers, and a pad of paper in your purse, or put some finger puppets in your pocket. As soon as your kid starts to fidget, pull out a couple of options and ask which one she'd rather play with. Stuck without any props? Start up a game of "I spy," or "20 questions" or tell her a story. As long as you're enthusiastic and excited about the game, your child will probably follow your lead.

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