Impulse control is the ability to delay gratification, or not act on a desire the second the desire happens. Practicing impulse control can help your child immensely. Perhaps the most well-known study on impulse control is one that came out of Stanford University in the 1960s and ‘70s, now best-known as the “marshmallow test.” The study looked at young children who were left in a room with a marshmallow, pretzel or other treat and told if they waited for the researcher to come back to the room they could have several marshmallows instead of one. The researchers left the children for about 15 minutes and watched through a one-way mirror. While the ways some of the children distracted themselves from eating the marshmallow were entertaining, like singing or closing their eyes, what was most groundbreaking about the study was the follow-up. The children who were able to wait to eat the marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores and and were higher academic achievers later in life.
It is important for your child to learn to wait. She may not always be patient, but you can help her learn to control the impulse to do something the moment she wants to. Your child has to wait for you to get off the phone before talking to you, wait at a restaurant for food to arrive, and wait for her turn to speak in class. You can help support her ability to wait by restricting the use of a device like a phone, tablet, or video game while she is in these waiting situations so that she learns to restrain herself. New York City-based teacher Anne Harlam suggests having kid-friendly magazines on hand, or even a notepad so she can write a message to you while you’re talking if it’s urgent. Learning to be patient and finding ways of distracting herself can help her develop her impulse control.
Compliment your child when you notice her delaying gratification. By taking the time to notice and reinforce when your child is showing this skill, you can encourage her to continue to do so in the future. For example, if you notice she was able to pick up her room before watching TV or playing with friends, point that out to her and tell her you’re proud of her for doing it. You could say, “I know you really wanted to watch TV right after school, but it shows a lot of responsibility that you picked up your room first. I’m proud of you for waiting.”
Show your child when you are delaying gratification, or waiting, because it might not always be obvious to a child. For example, maybe you really want to take a vacation but a kitchen appliance needs replacing first. Explain that situation to your child and why you are making the choices you are making. Director of Rutgers Social and Emotional Laboratory Dr. Maurice Elias says this is one of the most powerful ways to talk about impulse control because it is important for your child to learn how to resist what others are trying to get her to buy. This is also a great time to talk to your child about the difference between wants and needs, highlighting that there are items we may want but can do without. Additionally, by explaining when you are delaying something, you can help her develop her own skills by modeling that behavior.