Marilyn Benoit, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, describes the meltdown in "The Kids and the Demise of Frustration Tolerance," an essay she wrote for the Alliance for Childhood. Like other experts, she sees such outbursts as part of a disturbing trend.

"The problem I see emerging in children is one of decreasing frustration tolerance," Benoit explains. "In lay language, this translates into a lack of patience."

No Patience in a Fast-Paced World

Impatient children suffer more than just meltdowns. When they have not been taught or given the opportunity to delay their own gratification, children have a harder time empathizing with others and coping when life becomes challenging. Impatience is hardly unusual or even abnormal in a two year old, but meltdown-level impatience in older children can be a sign of more serious problems.

Benoit worries that these critical "civilizing" skills are being lost in the fast-paced, point-and-click world where technology reigns. Toddlers learn how to work television and DVD controls before they know their ABCs and grade-schoolers chat with friends online.

The Importance of Patience

Family psychologist and author Elizabeth Carll, PhD, agrees that patience, or lack thereof, reverberates in critical areas of children's lives. "Teaching children patience is essential not only for school success, but for development of appropriate interpersonal relationships and social skills," says Carll. "Poor impulse control can lead to aggression and violence for some children."

Carll notes that when children learn that it takes time to work toward their goals and plan ahead, they can adapt more easily when their needs are not immediately met. "Children who have patience are future-oriented," says Carll. "[Patience] can lead to much better life success."

Barriers to Patience

Out of necessity, children are born impatient. Having their needs met translates into survival and helps them establish bonds with their caregivers. But Benoit stresses that as children grow, they learn valuable lessons in tolerance and understanding when they do not get what they want when they want it.

Toby Sachsenmaier, PhD, a child and adolescent psychologist in Buffalo, New York, believes that children will naturally develop patience, but that parents often interfere with the process by not letting them learn how to deal with disappointment.

"Parents blow it when they become defensive," she explains. "We either get angry at them for wanting something or we become indulgent." Dr. Sachsenmaier advises parents to first accept their children's wants and desires, then make their expectations of proper behavior clear.

Ways to Teach Patience

To teach patience, parents need to follow some old-fashioned advice.

  • Model patience. "If we want our children to be patient, we have to show them patient behavior," says Dr. Sachsenmaier, adding, "that doesn't mean being patient all the time." She explains that when children see that there are times when it's natural to feel impatient, they can learn constructive ways to cope with their frustration—by talking about it instead of lashing out or by distracting themselves with a creative game.
  • Don't reward impatience. Children often show their impatience by acting out—with temper tantrums, meltdowns, meanness, or intolerance. Dr. Sachsenmaier tells parents that giving in to such behavior teaches children that impatience pays off. Instead, she advises parents to be calm, but firm in explaining to children that they cannot always get what they want when they want it.
  • Do reward patience. When children are waiting quietly in line or for their turns, Dr. Sachsenmaier encourages parents to make note of their patient behavior; acknowledge it and label it positively. By reinforcing the good behavior, parents can help children "see themselves as people who are capable of patience," says Dr. Sachsenmaier.
  • Slow down. "We as parents have to not be so seduced by the glamour of technology," says Benoit. Parents who overload their children's schedules with activities and rush to buy the latest computer games and software can add to the frantic pace that limits children's ability to be patient. "Kids need reflective down time," says Benoit.
  • Enjoy being patient together. Harris recommends that parents engage children in slow-paced, enriching activities. "Watching a sunset together gives you the opportunity to notice all the small changes that happen moment to moment," she says. Savoring each bit of movement over time helps children see the importance of waiting, watching, and learning. Gardening, constructing a large puzzle, building something that takes more than a day, and even old-fashioned card games—all of which involve making thoughtful, deliberate decisions—can also foster patience.

Long-term Success

In the end, children who learn patience can also overcome adversity in healthy, productive ways.Short-term losses can lead to long-term success and improved self-esteem when children master patience and discover the power of self-control.