The Stanford Marshmallow Test was conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Standford University. The purpose of the experiment was to study when the control of deferred gratification, the ability to wait in order to obtain something that one wants, develops in children.

Each child was placed in a room with no distractions with just a table, chair and a treat (the marshmallow) and explained the rules. The children could eat the marshmallow if they wanted but were promised if they waited and didn’t eat it for 15 minutes they would get another marshmallow as well. Children developed self distracting methods like counting, covering their eyes or kicking the desk.

The outcome of the study showed that age does determine the development of deferred gratification. Furthermore, follow-up studies showed that children who had better impulse control “were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent”

This explains a lot to parents about why their toddlers seem so emotional and are prone to tantrums. Another interesting fact is that the part of the brain in charge of impulse control is located in the frontal lobes, which isn’t developed until children are 9 and continues to develop till the age of 21!

So, now that we understand why toddlers and preschoolers act this way. How can we help?

  • Give your baby a responsive and predictable environment. Your baby will learn that the environment is safe and her brain will focus on learning from new experiences.
  • Remove temptations. Now that we understand that some actions, like telling your toddler over and over again not to touch the vase yet she still runs over to touch it every time, just can’t be controlled. You can make life easier for your child and yourself by removing tempting objects from your child’s reach to minimize conflict situations.
  • Give your toddler independence and words to express himself. During this age your toddler is developing a feeling of independence and autonomy. Allow him to do things for himself and help around the house to develop his sense of confidence.  Also, help him identify feelings and words that express those feelings  “I feel sad” “I’m angry he took my toy”. Use situations when your child is going through tough emotions to label those feelings “I know you feel sad…” “You look happy, I see a big smile on your face”. This will help your toddler express himself and help avoid frustration in already difficult situations.
  • Help your child figure out solutions. Once your child is able to communicate with you and other children you can help her solve conflict on her own. Take your child through these simple steps when a conflict arises. 1. What is the problem? 2. What does your child think would be a good solution? 3. Does this solution suit everyone? 4. If not? then what else do you propose? 5. Finally, go through with it.

You may need to act as a moderator in the beginning and help propose solutions, but by just going through the steps you’re giving your child a way to express herself,  regulate her frustrations and develop her problem solving skills. Pretty soon you’ll only be supervising this procedure and lending a hand once in a while your child handles things on her own.

  • Explain the consequences. By explaining to your child the reasons behind rules and the consequences for misbehavior you are telling him what to expect and what you expect quite clearly. This helps your child develop self-regulatory skills and learn to manage his own behavior.
  • Model self controlling behavior. This is a technique that can be used in almost anything, you basically can’t ask your child to behave a certain way if you are behaving the absolute opposite. If you expect your child to be calm and self controlling then you should be as well! Try to count to 5 before rushing to correct your child, make sure you are calm and you speak in a low tone. your child will follow your example!

Remember that any “mistakes” your child does are all part of her learning experience. Your role is to be a supportive and positive guide and assistant. Make sure you try approach situations with a positive attitude especially if your child is having a difficult moment.

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