Ever Wondered Why Waiting is Agony for Children

Waiting for something we want badly is torture. For children, it is agony multiplied a thousand times. There is a scientific reason behind it, which parents and caregivers must understand to be able to handle such situations calmly.

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Waiting can be a really arduous task, especially with a child on your tail. Imagine yourself at a store in a mall, which happens to be right across a kids’ play zone. While you are trying to find the right shirt size, your child would’ve nagged you twenty-seven million times to take you there.

“Give me 10 minutes,” is all you ask for. But they just don’t get it! Meltdowns can then happen on either side.

….So much for a day out shopping.

What if you were told that there is a scientific reason for “waiting” being a foreign language word for children – in any part of the world, that is. Understanding it might just be the key to your happiness and also your child’s. 

Waiting for something you want badly is torture. For children, it is agony multiplied a thousand times. Have you ever wondered why?

Do you know that about until the age of four, the concept of time does not exist for children?!

Yes, you heard that right.

Just wait for five minutes!” – makes no sense to a child.

Which is why WE need to be prepared to handle eventualities where waiting is entailed, depending on the child’s age. But before that we need to understand how the concept of time reveals itself to children.

In children, sense of time develops in three phases:


Only things that are happening in the present moment matter. This phase lasts till the age of three or four. At this age, the child lives moment to moment. Emotions are absolute. They cannot comprehend the passage of time or what the next moment would entail. So, if the child wants something and it is not happening now… don’t expect THEM to hold their horses. For them, it would seem like forever for ‘that something’ to happen or for their chance to come. Hence, the rolling-on-the-floor tantrums when they are told to wait for another child to finish playing with a toy.

Sensations and Experiences

Slowly, children start developing episodic memories. This means, there is a high chance that if you ask them what they did yesterday, they would not be able to respond. However, if you asked them how was the dance class yesterday, they will be able to give a detailed account of it. Many of the fuzzy memories of childhood that we have are these episodic memories, of which we don’t remember the age or timeframe.

Lasting Memories

As richness in language develops, the concept of time in terms of yesterday/today/tomorrow, days of the week and time of the day start making sense to children. Their cognitive abilities develop and the connection between time and events become clearer to children. This is when they develop memories that they will be able to recall in the later years with clarity.

Now, with this understanding, how can waiting be made manageable for children?

Depending on the urgency of the wait and the ability of the child to relate to the concept of time, one of the following techniques can be applied:

Younger Children (up to the age of 4)

Distract – While waiting in a queue at the ice cream parlour, it will be a life-saver if parents are able to keep the child engrossed in an interesting activity. Usually parents resort to surrendering the mobile. They can get creative and teach the child a new game or create an instant activity.

Prepare ahead – If it is anticipated that the situation will lead to a tantrum, parents should plan ahead by carrying something that will keep the child busy – like their favorite book, toy or coloring activity.

Take the boredom out of waiting – Fun games make waiting easy. For example, the “Can you spot” game. “Can you spot a man in a red shirt?” It always works!

Older Children (4 years+)

Once children start being able to reason and understand reason, and if waiting is inevitable, parents have two options:

Negotiate – “We will be able to go for the movie only next weekend. But we can have a family game night after I’m done with my work.”

Take action or at least show some progress – “I will order this toy for you next week during the sale. Meanwhile, help me add the right one to the cart.”

Often it is not the waiting that tests the nerves of children. It is not knowing how long they have to wait that makes it tough.

Explain the delay – Children need to be told the reason for the wait, in a language that they can understand. Getting their affirmation that they are onboard, on the same page as parents, diffuses the situation. “I know you want to buy this book right now. But if we order it online, we will save 50% on it. You can get two books for the same price! Isn’t that the smarter thing to do?”

Define how long the wait is going to be – Once children start understanding the concept of time, days, weeks and months, these can be used to define the timeframe. “You want to wear colour dress on your birthday. But it is not until 15 more days. Here…I’ve circled it on the calendar for you. You can cross out each day starting today, and you let me know when we are there? How’s that?”

Align them with conditions – There are times when waiting has other dependencies. For example, “We will go to T’s house tomorrow evening, only if they are back home by noon. They will need time to unwind and relax.” Help children understand the reasons behind contingencies.

Parents and caregivers can handle situations that entail waiting well, if they are prepared in advance, and learn to communicate with empathy.

 Lastly, children must be prepared to be able to wait. Good things come to those who wait, they say. But in today’s age of instant confirmations, we are losing sight of the biggest virtue of nature – patience. A few pointers:

  • Delay gratifications, so children understand the value of things they receive.
  • Do not set precedents that condition the child to hold us hostage to their tantrums.
  • Let children earn their wishlist items, where possible.
  • Ask them, do they really need it? Sometimes delaying helps them reflect on this.

As for handling the younger ones, parents and caregivers should learn to play the waiting game to remove the stress out of the situation. It is actually fun once we master the techniques.

Originally published on LinkedIn

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