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Managing Growing Impatience Between Parent and Adolescent

Frustration with demand, delay, denial, and diversity is on the rise.

Key points

  • Impatience for more freedom drives the adolescent; impatience to see more responsibility drives the parent.
  • Impatience can become emotionally risky when anxiety, anger, or impulsive action is provoked.
  • To lessen one's impatience, moderate expectations of what is wanted when.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Impatience is a tyranny of now: the feeling that immediate gratification must be met. A sense of urgency is created: "I can't wait!"

Thus the rule of impatience decrees: "Anything worth waiting for is worth having right away." Believing this, impatience itself can be a waste of time when it ignores the wonders of the passing moment.

In their relationship, both for adolescent and parent, to be patient or impatient is more often the question. There is a time for each.

While it can be problematic, impatience can also be functional. For example, they don’t want to be patient with what should be stopped like with a wrongful action in need of change: "Getting mad at me is no excuse for calling me bad names!" And they do want to honor impatience when it motivates the desire to grow: "I'm old enough now to give it a try!"

Adolescence and impatience

Adolescence is an age of growing impatience for parent and teenager, a more vulnerable time in their relationship. Now it’s easier to feel fatigued or frustrated when the other is delaying, denying, or disagreeing with what they want as the young person’s 10- to 12-year coming-of-age passage is getting underway.

Around late elementary school or early middle school is when this transformation typically begins. For the young person, it’s quite a challenge. One must:

  • separate from childhood
  • express more individuality
  • disagree more with parents
  • experiment with acting older
  • gather increased responsibility
  • develop a second family of friends
  • assert more social independence

Now development is driven by five increasingly impatient needs:

  1. A tyranny of now—need for more immediate gratification.
  2. Resistance to authority—need to test and contest existing rules.
  3. Developmental redefinition—need to act and look more grown up.
  4. Worldly curiosity—need to discover the larger world of experience.
  5. Attraction to risk-taking—need to dare breaking comfortable limitations.

Adolescent impatience is not just a risky impulse to be restrained but is also a generator of dissatisfaction that promotes growing change: "I don't want to be treated like a little child anymore!" Impatience is a motivator this way. It is not only impulsive; it is also adaptive.

Frustrations of impatience

Impatience comes in a couple of frustrating forms:

  • Positive impatience is “If it’s worth having, it’s worth having now!” Eagerness wants to be immediately satisfied.
  • Negative impatience is “Anything unhappy is worth stopping now.” Intolerance wants relief to be immediately given.

In both cases, gratification in the moment is desired.

The problem

As the child grows into adolescence, it’s easy for parent and teenager to become more intolerant and urgent with each other.

  • Now the young person urgently wants to have more growing freedom: “You need to let me!”
  • Now parents demand to see more evidence of increased responsibility: “You need to show us!”

Because adolescence is a more hurry-up stage of growth (more freedom is wanted sooner), it is a more hurry-up period of parenting, too (there is less time to weigh possible risks). Impatience can rush a young person’s judgment: “I need permission right now!” Having to decide in the urgent moment, parents can have less time to think: “You need to slow down!”

Of course, substance use favors impatience, which is how a lot of impulsive decisions are unhappily empowered. By encouraging acting in the moment, psycho-active drugs can set ill-advised impatience free: "I can drink and drive!"

Parental impatience

Impatience feels urgent: “I must get what I want right away.” Impatience is in an emotional hurry. It can’t wait. It hates being put off. It wants gratification soon or now. Parents who struggle with impatience often have an unrealistically high set of expectations of one or more of three kinds:

  • They can have unrealistically high ambitions: They want a lot to happen. Impatience from unmet ambitions can result in disappointment: “You failed to meet my hopes and dreams.”
  • They can have unrealistically high predictions: They anticipate a lot about what will happen. Impatience from unmet predictions can result in surprise: “You didn’t behave like I thought you would.”
  • They can have unrealistically high standards: They believe others should achieve well. Impatience with unmet standards can result in anger. “You didn’t live up to our code of family conduct.”

Impatience can arise from violated expectations.

Owning impatience

Parents can work at creating patient expectations. For example,

  • Patient ambitions might be “I don’t have to get everything I want.”
  • Patient predictions might be "I can’t anticipate how everything will be.”
  • Patient conditions might be: "I won’t prescribe how everything should happen.”

Patience accepts being powerless in these ways.

If a parent finds themselves continually deviled by impatience with their adolescent, this may be a time to examine expectations that one chooses to hold. To lessen impatience, try lowering expectations:

  • “Maybe I want too much”—lower ambitions.
  • “Maybe I worry too much”—modify predictions.
  • “Maybe I demand too much”—reduce conditions.

The power of parental patience

While impatience can be a valuable informant about what one wants to happen that isn’t happening (at least not yet), it can be a very bad advisor when creating parental upset from growing youthful demand, delay, disagreement, and denial. Now is the time to reset parental expectations: "Come my child's adolescence, it can take longer to get my way."

To help calm this frustration, ask yourself: "What's the rush?" If the matter is worth pursuing, then invest in patient persistence to see that it gets done. And treat parental patience not only as a strength but also as two invaluable gifts in one:

  • The teenager gets to live with a parent who is mostly calm and not easily aggravated or upset.
  • The adolescent is given a working model of adult patience that they can imitate in the years ahead.

Finally, two popular cautions about impatience may be worth keeping in mind: "Haste makes waste" (old adage), and "Slow down you go too fast, got to make the moment last" (lyric by Simon & Garfunkel.)

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
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