It’s hard to wait! It can be hard for adults, and it’s even harder for young children. Psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues have spent decades researching children’s capacity to delay gratification. Often referred to as the “Marshmallow experiments,” Mischel’s studies vividly illustrate how hard it can be for young children to wait for something they want, and how important this skill is for later success. In these studies, 3- to 5-year-olds were given the choice to either have one marshmallow right away, or wait an unknown amount of time (actually 15 minutes) and receive two marshmallows. They found that across the preschool years, children improve in their ability to delay gratification and tolerate frustration—and some children find this task much easier than others. This capacity has been associated with many positive outcomes for children in the long-term, far beyond getting a second marshmallow. And it’s a capacity we can help children develop!
Here’s what you can do to support your child in developing frustration tolerance and the capacity to delay gratification:
To help your child learn to delay gratification:
- Be reliable and consistent. Even very young children are sensitive to whether adults follow through on promises, and our consistency helps them trust that waiting is worthwhile.
- Show your child how you wait. Our children learn from our example. Daily life offers many opportunities for us to model self-regulation as we wait: “I really want to taste the muffins, but I’m going to wait till after dinner.” (And, for a child 3 or older, we can add a strategy:) “It’s easier for me to wait if I focus on something else—will you help me clean up our baking supplies?”
- Create rituals and engage in activities together that involve waiting for something wonderful. Cooking and gardening can offer children practice in waiting, and they produce results children love. If we let muffins bake, they get bigger and bigger and taste delicious! When we water seeds and give them sunlight and then wait, they can grow into plants with leaves and sometimes even flowers or food. Games that require taking turns can also teach children to delay gratification.
- See daily activities as opportunities to develop the capacity to wait. Don’t give in to every impulse —for snacks, interruption, purchases, etc.
To help your child develop frustration tolerance:
They must experience frustration. We must not aim to protect our child from every disappointment or challenge (and it’s not actually possible to do that anyway). Navigating frustration and other difficulties develops children’s resilience and helps them feel strong and capable.
In addition to allowing them to encounter frustrating experiences, you can:
- Learn what frustrates your child. Why is your child frustrated? Common triggers include lack of control over a situation, ruptured connections with peers or adults, difficulty with successfully completing an activity, transitions or unexpected changes, and physical dysregulation like hunger and fatigue. Sometimes more than one of these triggers is happening at once! Keep in mind, the question of why is not necessarily to be asked of your child, especially in the moment. They may not be able to express, or even know the answer themselves. There may also be deeper feelings underneath the immediate triggers. With curiosity, patience, and close attention to our child’s cues, we as parents can begin to understand the origins of their frustration (and other challenging feelings).
- Check in with yourself. How are you feeling?
- Acknowledge the child’s emotions. Avoid minimizing or denying their feelings with responses like “You’re okay,” “Big kids don’t cry,” or “Don’t be sad. We’ll come back another day.” A frustrated child (or adult!) appreciates having their feelings validated. “You wanted ice cream and the store is closed. That’s disappointing.”
- Help your child learn strategies to regulate their big feelings, such as by noticing sensations in their bodies, and practicing deep breathing.
- Try using humor (without making fun of the child). Bring some lightness to the situation to help the child restore their connection with you and transition back to baseline. With children ages 2 and over, one way recommended by parent-child communication expertsAdele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is to “give the child their wishes in fantasy”: “I wish the store would magically open right now and we could order an ice cream sundae that was as tall as a building!”
- Model frustration tolerance. Again, our children learn from how we navigate frustrating situations:
- Hannah and her 2-year-old daughter return from a doctor’s appointment to discover a parking attendant filling out a parking ticket. The attendant presents the (expensive!) ticket and explains it doesn’t matter that they were only two minutes late. Hannah feels her face redden and her chest tighten, and she recalls her own parents’ outrage in situations like these. She crouches down to her daughter’s eye level and says, “Wow, I am frustrated. I didn’t want a ticket, but we were late and now we have a ticket. I’m going to take a deep breath to calm down…There, that feels better. I’m going to set an alarm on my phone the next time we use a parking meter. I don’t want to be late and get another ticket.”