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.
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.
"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.
As an adult, you know that when you have to wait for something you can often make the delay more bearable by texting a friend or flipping through a magazine to find a recipe for dinner. But when preschoolers are asked to sit tight, they usually have little say over what to do while they're waiting. The next time your child is begging you to play but you need to finish folding the laundry first, encourage him to figure out how to entertain himself. This way, he'll be learning how to distract himself. Say, "I know you want me to play cars right now, but I've got some housework I have to get done first. Why don't you go to the toy box and see if there is something in there you can do for a little while." If he's stuck, prompt him and suggest that he pick a puzzle to pass the time.
Helping your child practice patience in entertaining ways will show her that it isn't that bad. Most board games involve some kind of waiting for a turn, so try scheduling family game nights. She'll learn that in order to play, she has to sit back while others have their turn. "Keep the game moving along quickly, though, because you can't really expect her to easily slog through three others pondering their next moves," says Dr. Drucker. Give her a pep talk if she gets restless ("I like how you're being patient while Dad takes his turn").
Visuals can also make waiting more fun. If there are endless weeks looming between now and a vacation or a birthday, try making a paper countdown chain. Inside each loop, write down something to do together, like baking cookies or going on a bike ride. Each day, she can remove one link and you can do the activity. Watching the chain shrink in size will help her see in a concrete way that the event really is getting closer.
As your preschooler gets more experiences under his belt, use those memories as a way to stay patient again, suggests Dr. Drucker. Talk about the experience afterward, and say, "It was hard to wait in line for the ride, but didn't you love going on the carousel horse?" The next time you're in a similar situation, you can say, "Remember when we had to wait for our turn on the horse? We sang a few songs together, and then we got to go on. Let's do the same thing now." Reminding him how he successfully played the waiting game in the past could turn being patient into a doable task instead of something he dreads.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.