Wait! Should you delay gratification?

In the 1960-70s, researchers at Stanford University embarked upon the, now famous, Marshmallow Study. They went to the university child care centre to study children’s’ ability to hold back. They devised a task where a child was left in a room with a marshmallow (or biscuit or pretzel if they preferred). The child was told if they wait and don’t eat the marshmallow, the adult would give them two marshmallows when the adult returned. The adult then left the room. There are lots of very funny YouTube clips about the sorts of things that might have ensued whilst the adult researcher was out of the room. Years later, the researchers returned to the study and found out that those who waited for the return of the researcher/adult and received the extra marshmallow, had better life outcomes, fewer issues with being overweight and scored better in high school exams. The researchers are still following this group of, now adult, children and are doing further research mapping their brain activity.

Of course, the Marshmallow study does not mean that your child’s future will be determined by a marshmallow. There are a multitude of other confounding variables that were not accounted for over all of those years form kinder to adulthood. However, people seem to like the idea that those who are patient and hold back will be rewarded on their life journey.

Sometimes, though, not holding back is an adaptive thing.

If you have been starved, why would you hold back? In fact, it would be maladaptive, or just silly, to let that opportunity go by. If you have a huge family and hoards of brothers and sisters and cousins sharing your space, wouldn’t you be more tempted to take that marshmallow? Some children have trouble with being a little too inhibited and holding back too often. Getting it the right mix of “stop” and “go” is a tricky thing to learn.

However, when it comes to mental health, there seems to be a lot of issues that arise for people who have trouble learning to delay their gratification and managing urges. Impulse control or impulsivity is implicated as a risk factor in many concerning mental health presentations. Those who self harm, who have conduct disorder, ADHD issues or anti-social or offending behaviour are very likely to have issues with impulsivity.

Being able to hold back an urge is a complex thing for a growing brain to be able to do. It’s part of what neuropsychologists call an “executive function”. Imagine that the brain is full of worker parts and that there is the top brass, or executive, running the show. Now, imagine that instead of one executive, there is a board and each board member is responsible for different jobs…one for getting things started, one for holding back, one for paying attention, one for managing change, one for organising and planning and one for impulse control and self-monitoring. The board members all need to communicate with other parts of the brain and report back to the board.

Clearly, managing your body’s thoughts and urges is an incredible task for a growing brain to begin to master.

For children who have trouble with executive functions there are a range of things that can assist. Some of these include making sure that the environment helps them – if they can’t do it on the inside of their brain yet, then they will need some help of others on the outside of their brains. If your child has trouble with controlling impulses, it’s important that you try to minimise distractions and temptations that might prompt an urge.

While the environment is being managed, you can also work on helping the child to develop skills such as waiting and holding back. It can help to use visual clues and teachers might want to use traffic lights to prompt children to “stop” and “think” before they “do”. It can also help to re-focus a child and encourage them to self-monitor. If a child has serious problems with these tasks, especially when compared to their friends and class mates of the same age, it is worth getting things checked out. A GP may refer to a paediatrician who could ask for some neuropsychological testing to determine the child’s strengths and weaknesses in executive functioning so that a proper plan of assistance can be purpose-built and put into place by the child’s team.

If you don’t think the child has clinically concerning troubles with delaying their gratification, but you wish to help them work more on “stopping”/holding back from time to time more getting them to “go” when it would help , it is worth trying a few other day to day things.

Once a brain is set on a certain pathway and the “go” button has been presses, the brain is sometimes reluctant to change tack or “stop”. We have known for some time now that if you give a child a series of commands that they are usually likely to comply with (perhaps, “stir this cake mix, crack in the egg, pour it into the pan”), then, when they are on a roll, you throw in one that they are less thrilled about doing (“wipe down the benches”), there’s an increased chance that the less desirable job will get done. The chore is swept along in the brains “go” pattern. This is called establishing a “behavioural momentum”.

Of course, it will help to maintain compliance, waiting, and stopping and going appropriately, if you reward and praise the child and if you model and demonstrate the sorts of behaviours that you would like to see them do. Like all good managers, a child’s brain executive board loves positive feedback and a well-earned treat. My brain quite fancies a marshmallow!

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