When we’re young we have no patience; we are governed by our impulses. How, then, do we learn to tame our impulses and develop self control? When a small child reaches his hand toward fire, an adult yells and prevents it. When he wants to poke a stick into an electric socket, someone stops him. A toddler sees his friend’s shinny red truck and grabs it. It’s appealing and he wants it. His friend yells no or an adult stops him, but his natural exploring instinct pushes him. He doesn’t like being denied. Yet, it is these small incidents of being stopped by external forces that help us learn to stop ourselves.
We slowly learn ways to tolerate this disruption of our desire. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Dan Goleman, says, “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental, than resisting impulse. It is the root of all emotional self control, since all emotions, by their very nature lead to one or another impulse to act. The root meaning of the word emotion, remember is “to move …” Goleman then talks about a study done at Stanford University in the 60’s: the marshmallow challenge. In the challenge, a group of four year olds are given two choices. If they can wait while the experimenter runs an errand they can have two marshmallows; if they can’t wait they can only have one, which they can have immediately. Some four year olds were able to wait the 15 to 20 minutes the experimenter was out of the room. They chose a variety of strategies to calm and distract themselves. They turned their chairs around or covered their eyes to avoid seeing the tempting marshmallow; they sang, played games with their hands and feet and even tried to sleep. The other more impulsive four year olds grabbed the marshmallow within seconds of the experimenter’s departure.
The amount of impulse control a child exhibited during this marshmallow challenge turned out to predict how well these kids were doing 14 years later. The kids who exercised strategies to successfully distract themselves were more popular with their peers, had less trouble delaying gratification and scored far higher on achievement tests than the “grabbers.” Since there are so many benefits to learning to not be “grabbers” how do we help our children learn this skill?
Name the Emotion
Sometimes when children are stressed, they won’t know what emotion they’re feeling. Often children have vague categories of good, bad, or so-so. You can help them to be more discriminating and able to name what they’re feeling. You can say: “I see you’re angry about having to share some of your toys,” or “ I see you’re sad because you don’t think I’ve understood you. Can we try again? I’d really like to know what you’re feeling right now.” Expressing feelings is one way to dissipate stress. Research has shown that just naming a feeling helps us feel calmer.
It is helpful for parents to notice their children’s attempts at managing frustrations and offer encouraging words. When a child is about to give up on something, you can say: “It’s hard, but you can do it.” Or, when you know an unpleasant chore is being done without a lot of fuss you can say, “You really didn’t want to do that, but you did it anyway. Way to go!” It helps children to believe in themselves and in their ability to persevere when we see their effort.
Allow Manageable Experiences of Frustration
Don’t try to protect your children from all frustration. It is the experience of small doses of frustration that build character and inner strength. The old rule of “not too much and not too little” applies here. When we protect children from all frustration we rob them of the challenge to become more competent in managing their own stress. We also don’t want them to manage frustrations that are truly beyond their developmental ability. This leads not only to frustrations, but to an internal belief system that they are not competent.
Life is full of frustrations like the marshmallow test. We need to help our children face these ordinary life disappointments and help them develop emotional flexibility. This fundamental ability to tolerate frustration once learned will help them move from upset to calm with increased ease, self control and self awareness.