How to Help Teens Develop Patience
Patience! What parent or teen couldn’t use more of it?
In this fascinating Q&A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, talks with patience expert, Sarah Schnitker. Schnitker is Associate Professor of Psychology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas where she focuses on the study of gratitude, generosity, and of course, self-control, and patience. Prior to her work at Baylor, Schnitker was Associate Professor at the Thrive Center for Human Development in Pasadena, California.
Allison Gilbert: Your work focuses on patience. Why do you consider this to be such an important virtue?
Sarah Schnitker: Patience is primarily focused on how we are able to stay calm in the face of frustration, adversity, and suffering. In our high-tech world, we often delude ourselves into thinking we can avoid frustrations or suffering through technological advances. However, all the most important things in life — romantic relationships, friendships, meaningful work, parenting, etc. — cannot be achieved without overcoming obstacles and frustrations.
We need to teach people how to be patient so they can be resilient to challenges, rather than try to escape them. In our research, we find that patience is linked to a variety of well-being outcomes such as lower depressive symptoms and higher overall life satisfaction. It seems learning to be patient really helps people achieve better lives.
AG: What are your top three strategies for parents to become more patient with their tweens and teens?
SS: When my collaborators and I talk about cultivating the virtue of patience, we tend to describe three steps: identify, imagine, and sync.
- Identify: This first step — identify — is for you, the parent, to slow down and just notice how you are feeling. Are you angry? Sad? Afraid? Although this sounds easy, it can actually be difficult.
- Imagine: The next step involves imagining the situation in a new way, a point of view that helps you calm down. This is what we refer to as cognitive reappraisal; It involves changing the way you think about a situation to alleviate the emotional burden. We want people to learn to think about situations in a different way so they can change their attitudes and emotions. Sometimes we can’t change a situation, but we can change how we think about a situation.
- Sync: The third step —sync — involves the ability to connect these skills for regulating emotions with the bigger purposes in your life. To get a sense of how this might play out, consider the following example:
A mom keeps getting upset with her teenage son for staying up late texting instead of getting enough sleep. The first step would be for this mom to identify her emotions. After taking a moment to reflect she realizes that she is feeling both angry and afraid. She’s concerned about the potential impact on both his health and academics. She is angry her son is not listening to her. Next, she imagines the scenario from a new perspective. Meaning, she might deal with her anger by saying to herself, ‘My son is not staying up late texting because he wants to defy me. Instead, he is really motivated to stay connected to his friends.’ She can then sync with her bigger purpose — thinking about how she and her spouse have discussed their number one parenting goal is to raise a son who knows how to love and be loved. Even though his behavior is not acceptable, in some ways, it shows he cares about others. And, just because this mom is patient, it doesn’t mean she won’t enforce consequences for her son breaking a rule. Instead, her patience allows her to think more clearly and lovingly about how to engage with her son.
AG: Likewise, what tips do you have for teens to become more patient with their parents?
SS: I would recommend the same three steps: identify, imagine, and sync. However, this next example reflects a teenager’s perspective.
Let’s say 16-year old Emma has a learner’s permit and is getting frustrated every time her dad takes her out driving. He criticizes her, and they end up fighting by the end of each trip. As she tries to learn to be patient with her dad, the first step would be to identify her emotions. After taking a few deep breaths, she might realize she is feeling sad that her dad doesn’t trust her. She might also recognize she’s feeling anxious about learning how to drive. Emma can then imagine the scenario differently. Maybe she even tries to take her father’s perspective. She realizes he might also be feeling sad (his daughter is growing up) and nervous (his daughter might get in an accident). Emma realizes they are actually feeling pretty similarly, which makes it easier to cope. As a final step to building patience, she can sync to her bigger purpose in life. She can think about how she is studying hard in school so she can become an Air Force pilot someday. She can realize learning to deal with her father’s criticism will prepare her to deal with the intensity of the military so she can serve her country.
AG: You’re currently developing an app to help adolescents build patience. What will it look like, and when will the app be available?
SS: Yes, we are building an app that helps teenagers identify their negative emotions in relation to conflicts and gives them strategies to better manage conflicts when they arise. We hope when teenagers are frustrated they can turn to the app to try out strategies for imagining situations in different ways – and we’ve tried to make learning similar to a game. For example, we have a challenge where a teenager takes a selfie, engages in a breathing exercise to calm down, and then takes a selfie again to see how his or her facial expression has changed. We are analyzing data from the first round of 500 adolescents who used the app for two weeks, and we hope to make it available in the next year.
AG: You’re also investigating, along with Benjamin Houltberg, how patience supports the emotional health of elite athletes in high-pressure situations. Have you discovered any takeaways yet that would apply to middle and high school athletes?
SS: Definitely. Ben Houltberg and I have been examining how patience might be helpful for both elite and amateur athletes. Although results are preliminary right now, it appears the steps to building patience are similar for both types of athletes. All athletes need to deal with injuries and setbacks without getting reckless (and re-injuring themselves) or disengaging from their sport because they lose hope. For many, though, one of the biggest struggles when building patience develops during the sync step. Many athletes become so focused on performance they don’t cultivate an identity that is based on a purpose beyond the self. We’ve started to demonstrate that a purpose-based identity is associated with positive athlete mental wellness whereas a performance-based identity is associated with negative outcomes. In other words, when athletes focus on their love of their sport they’re generally happier and more satisfied than if they solely pay attention to, for example, the points they score. Our next step is to examine how these identities and patience affect athletic performance.