It is often fun and sometimes exhausting watching the speed with which children run around or switch from one game to another. A lot of us were attracted to pediatrics to share the quick joy of children and also the speed of their physical recovery. We get to see premature infants gain an ounce a day, and see wounds heal in less than a week. We give advice on sleep and see success in a month. We and the families get used to quick fixes.
Parents and children are forewarned and reassured by our knowledge about how long things typically take: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) peaks in 5 days, colic lessens in 3 months, changing sleep patterns takes 3 weeks, habit formation 6 weeks, menses come 2 years after breast development, and so on. But the timing of daily parenting is rarely as predictable. Sometimes a child’s clock is running fast, making waiting even seconds for a snack or a bathroom difficult; other times are slow, as when walking down the sidewalk noticing every leaf. The child’s clock is independent of the adult’s – and complicated by clocks of siblings.
Parent pace also is determined by many factors unrelated to the child: work demands, deadlines, train schedules, something in the oven, needs of siblings, and so on. To those can be added intrinsic factors affecting parent’s tolerance to shifting pace to the child’s such as temperament, fatigue, illness, pain, or even adult ADHD. And don’t forget caffeine (or other drugs) affecting the internal metronome. When impatience with the child is a complaint, it is useful to ask, “What makes waiting for your child difficult for you?”
When discussing time, I find it important to discuss the poison “s-word” of parenting – “should.” This trickster often comes from time illusions in childrearing. After seeing so many behaviors change quickly, parents expect all change to be equally fast. She should be able to sleep through the night by now! He should be able to dress and get to the table in 5 minutes. And sometimes it is the parent’s s-word that creates pain – I should love pushing for as long as she wants to swing, if I am a good parent. The problem with thinking “should” is that it implies willful or moral behavior, and it may prompt a judgmental or punitive parental response.
Otherwise well intentioned, cooperative children who take longer to shift their attention from homework to shower can be seen as oppositional. Worse yet, if the example used is from playing video games (something fun) to getting to the bus stop (an undesirable shift), you may hear parents critically say, “He only wants to do what he wants to do.” When examining examples (always key to helping with behavior), pointing out that all kinds of transitions are difficult for this child may be educational and allow for a more reasoned response. And specifically being on electronics puts adults as well as children in a time warp which is hard to escape.
There are many kinds of thwarted expectations, but expectations about how long things take are pretty universal. Frustration generates anger and even can lead to violence, such as road rage. Children – who all step to the beat of a different drummer, especially those with different “clocks” such as in ADHD – may experience frustration most of the day. This can manifest as irritability for them and sometimes as an irritable response back from the parent.
The first step in adapting to differences in parent and child pace is to realize that time is the problem. Naming it, saying “we are on toddler time,” can be a “signal to self” to slow down. Generations of children loved Mr. Rogers because he always conveyed having all the time in the world for the person he was with. It actually does not take as long as it feels at first to do this. Listening while keeping eye contact, breathing deeply, and waiting until two breaths after the child goes silent before speaking or moving conveys your interest and respect. For some behaviors, such as tantrums, such quiet attention may be all that is needed to resolve the issue. We adults can practice this, but even infants can be helped to develop patience by reinforcement with brief attention from their caregivers for tiny increments of waiting.
I sometimes suggest that parents time behaviors to develop perspective, reset expectations, practice waiting, and perhaps even distract themselves from intervening and making things worse by lending attention to negative behaviors. Timing as observation can be helpful for tantrums, breath holding spells, whining, and sibling squabbles; maximum times for baths and video games; minimum times for meals, sitting to poop, and special time. Timers are not just for Time Out! “Visual timers” that show green then yellow then red and sometimes flashing lights as warnings of an upcoming stopping point are helpful for children preschool and older. These timers help them to develop a better sense of time and begin managing their own transitions. A game of guessing how long things take can build timing skills and patience. I think every child past preschool benefits from a wristwatch, first to build time sense, and second to avoid looking at a smartphone to see the hour, then being distracted by content! Diaries of behaviors over time are a staple of behavior change plans, with the added benefit of lending perspective on actually how often and how long a troublesome behavior occurs. Practicing mindfulness – nonjudgmental watching of our thoughts and feelings, often with deep breathing and relaxation – also can help both children and adults build time tolerance.
Children have little control over their daily schedule. Surrendering when you can for them to do things at their own pace can reduce their frustration, build the parent-child relationship, and promote positive behaviors. Plus family life is more enjoyable lived slower. You even can remind parents that “the days are long but the years are short” before their children will be grown and gone.
Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of firstname.lastname@example.org.. She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at