Category Archives: Self control

More Ideas On Dealing With That Anger: Wear It Out, Hug It Out

Video-thumb-activity-184I'm picking up on a theme here from the many awesome comments received in response to Bella's last post. A few people mentioned that the empathising-with-the-angry-child strategy didn't seem to work as well, especially for some younger kids. Many of you pointed out that the anger seemed to need to run it's course and that trying to reason or empathize, in the moment, just seemed to make things escalate. Someone expressed concern about the message we send when we immediately act to divert attention away from the anger. Are we teaching our kids that expressing bad feelings should be avoided at all costs? Let me pass on a couple of thoughts.

To "Mom2boys" and others with little ones that start to strike out when they are angry, you might want to get your
hands on "
No Biting" or "No Hitting" by Karen Katz. Fun, light, lift-the-flap books that are great for redirecting toddler misbehaviour. E.g. One page on the left in "No Biting" says "No
hitting mommy" with appropriate picture. On the right page it says, "What can you hit?". Lift the flap and it says "A drum!". There is a great picture of a mini drummer letting rip!.  My son LOVED the whole series
by Karen Katz (the art work is beautiful) but particularly this book and it seemed to work. After a couple
of readings he would run and find his toy drum when he was mad and just have at it.

This brings me to my first suggestion: Wear it Out! 

Perhaps with younger and/or more intense children who are not yet able to self-regulate very well, you can help them wear that anger out and therefore get to a more reasonable place. My son was not actually very big on "tantrums" (I'd know way before that the anger was brewing, which was a bonus because I could move to cut it off at the pass) but he sure is intense and when he did really lose it, it wasn't subtle. He couldn't even hear me, even if I was empathising, so I would try to help him work the anger out. I'd say, "It's fine to be mad/angry, let's go in your room and punch your pillow until you feel better."  Sometimes I would bring the pillow to him and he'd actually lay into it. After a few minutes of me actually ALLOWING the anger, he (or is it we?) wore it out. My take on it is that it is a more action-oriented way (as opposed to psychologically-oriented) way to empathise or acknowledge that anger and then help your child get to the point where other techniques like distraction can take effect. I remember this to be especially helpful at around the 18 months to 3 years age, when kids really are more action-oriented anyway, generally speaking. 

My second suggestion?
Hug it Out! 

Your anger is pretty scary to children -
justified or not, non-maligning or not and we need to acknowledge this. Even if
you are totally justified in your anger (and in parenting, there are MANY times when we are), it's important to repair. 

It's not that different from any other relationship. Lord knows I've had very justified outbursts towards spouse, but even then I think it's good to "make amends" when you've had your say. It puts things on a more even footing rather than having the memory of the interaction being more like that of a powerful-figure-scolding-the-helpless. The repair can help re-establish a sense of partnership and hopefully lead to more co-operation on the issue in the future. It also says, it's okay to be angry and to express it. We'll come out the other side and it'll be okay.

Maybe not right away, but even
when X seems fine after the outburst has subsided and we've moved on, I try to revisit the issue briefly, say at bed time. I usually say that "I don't like
yelling, don't want to make you feel bad…I just get frustrated and then I
don't know what to do anymore. So I yell. Can we please try to avoid that
next time? Can you please try to listen to me when I ask you to….?" Then I usually say, "I think maybe we should hug it out." And we do, and we feel like comrades again.

And on that sweet note…I leave you to a lovely weekend.

–by Tracy

(with apologies for the varying font, I cannot for the life of me, fix it!)

Get back to play and learn some self-control, Johnny!

Pretend play
Thanks to one of our readers, Bonnie, for suggesting the topic of today's post, this New York Times article. It would be silly for me to review the whole article here, given it's the NYTs and their writers are kinda good. So… go read it first and then we can talk a bit about some of the issues it raises.

Back?  Excellent!  So, the article presents a program that is attempting to teach children the kinds of self-control skills that we've been talking about this week — not just delaying gratification, but also being able to shift attention when you have to, being able to SUSTAIN attention when you have to, being able to wait patiently for your turn, being able to persevere without being distracted until you've solved a problem, and so on. Unlike other school programs, this particular one (called Tools of the Mind) doesn't try to teach kids with explicit directions to control themselves, nor does it advocate using behavioural principles like negative feedback for "bad" behaviour and positive reinforcement for "good" behaviour. Instead, the program is designed to foster self-control by creating a learning environment that is steeped with opportunities to USE and practice these skills. A large part of the day is spent encouraging (and even "teaching") children how to engage in "productive" pretend play. Yes, they're TEACHING children how to pretend to be princes, princesses, mommy with baby, batman and robin, and so on, all with the idea that this helps children practice and get better at sustained attention and self-control. Here's the most interesting quote out of the the whole article for me:

"Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s
followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can
control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations.
In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still
for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a
minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were
guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than
four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were
asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery
store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time,
though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the
children were able to remember twice as many words. Bodrova and Leong
say they see the same effect in Tools of the Mind classrooms: when
their students spend more time on dramatic play, not only does their
level of self-control improve, but so do their language skills."

Interesting, huh? So, at least for the 3-6 year olds, making playdates (how I loathe that word) during which we encourage kids to dress up and play house, doctor, superheros and restaurant (and hope they leave us alone to eat our cake and gossip) is just what they need to acquire those self-control skills. MAAAAAAAAAAAAYBE.

The truth is, the jury is out on the science part of this claim. The crux of the article, if you read it all the way through, is
that they're not quite sure IF this whole pretend-play focus and Tools of the Mind in particular works. Equally important, even if it does turn out that it works, they have
no idea WHY. The current studies aren't even looking at the various elements in the program (and there are many) that may be facilitating greater cognitive and emotional control. And there are no other well-designed, replicated studies that have established effective strategies to teach children cognitive control. 

My guess is that there are some things we can do to help (provide lots of practice with waiting for a reward, teach self-distraction strategies, play games that require turn-taking, enforce rules about listening to others at the dinner table, etc.), but that the vast majority of children are in environments that already naturally foster these skills at develomentally appropriate ages. Executive function or cognitive control or whatever you want to call it has been shown to increase steadily over the ages of 2 and 5-ish (and it keeps going, just at a slower rate). For a fabulous paper (Carlson, 2005) that reviews the neuropsychological and cognitive studies, click on the first link in this Google Scholar search (I keep trying different ways to post original scientific papers through links on this blog). 

And in answer to the orginal question on Monday about what to do with a 1-year old that can't delay gratification: I'd say apart from Tracy's recommendations to just keep the enticing stuff out of sight, there's not much you can do… and that's TOTALLY fine. One-year olds don't have the mental capacity yet to control their impulses, thoughts, or emotions (nor will they until about the age of 2 and then, just barely).

So, at this point, your guess is as good as any scientist's: What do you do with your children that may be helping them to develop better self-control? Do you think there are some things we do that may delay these acquisitions?

– Isabela

Step Away from the Chocolate Cake: Strategies to Help Delay Gratification


 I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth.
When confronted with oh say, a 
slice of good quality chocolate cake, I’d have a hard time waiting to
eat it, such as after eating all of my green vegetables. So all this talk about
waiting to eat marshmallows got me thinking about how I would have fared with
the marshmallow task as a child. Probably terribly (but can I just point out
here that I’ve done okay…I’m just saying…). And naturally, I’m wondering what
my son would do (read: what are his future prospects in life and other enormous
parenting questions that I should know better than to worry about). So how do
young children cope when they have to delay gratification?  What are those future Bill Gates doing
to help themselves keep their little fingies off of those marshmallows? And
yes, can parents influence this emerging development of self-control?

If you watched the video at the end of Isabel’s post on
Monday (if not then try here), you were probably amused, as I was, at some of
the strategies children attempted to keep from eating that sweet, seductive
cloud of confection. They covered the gamut from the girl who just stuffed it
into her mouth, unapologetically (even remembering to clear her plate from the
table after wards – nice!), to the boy who pushed it up against his nose, to
those who just studied it carefully. But it was the boy who turned his head to
the side and just did not look at it, that really got me. Hmm… that seemed like
it might help.

Turns out that in Mischel’s early work he gave children
choices about what they could and could not look at while they were waiting
such as the real reward vs. a colour photograph of it. He also asked them what
they preferred to look at. Get this, preschool children actually looked at, and
preferred, the actual reward over the picture! In other words, they seemed
unable to anticipate that this would only drive them into a frenzy of
frustration and effectively sabotage their efforts to wait for the bigger
reward. Oh, the agony.

Children start to see the light around their 6th
birthday. So e.g. they start to prefer to cover the reward rather than to leave
it out in the open. By grade 3, their prefer to think more about the waiting
than on the eating of the marshmallows. And by grade 6, they’ve moved on to
prefer thinking of marshmallow properties e.g. that they are puffy like clouds.
So don’t worry, it’s not a write off if your preschooler is having trouble
waiting now.

The good news is: you can probably help your little one
along the way. For one thing,  out
of sight is out of mind baby!  So
whatever you do, take the tempting item away. Put it on a high shelf, in the
other room or cover it up. When you have dessert planned for after dinner,
leave the pie in the fridge until you are ready to serve it. You’ll have a
better shot at getting your little one to focus on the task at hand – dinner. You
can also help by distracting your child. Get them to focus on things other than EATING that ice cream.

Here’s one last thing to chew on…As you become more aware
that it is actually quite hard for young children to control their natural
impulses, wait, delay gratification etc., you may become tempted to be more
lenient. “It’s so hard for them, this insistence on getting that Halloween
candy now is part of normal development etc., it will come in time", so you reason. But perhaps when
parents insist that children wait for that treat for after dinner, they are
effectively training them to get used to waiting and to find ways to make it
work. Maybe those kids who managed to “step away from” the marshmallow in
Mischel’s studies came from homes where this was more the case (too bad they
didn’t interview or give questionnaires to the parents). Since, according to the
research, they would go on to fare better on a host of measures including
academic achievement, you could be doing your child a huge favour by saving the
chocolate cake for after they’ve eaten their brussels sprouts (well okay, maybe
not brussels sprouts). Just a thought.

–by Tracy


I want it NOW! Linking delayed gratification, marshmallows and SAT scores

Ahem… Sorry about last week's blog neglect. Many forces conspired against us and, well, you know how it is.  But upward and onward!

This week's topic was inspired by a recent questions sent in by a reader:

I was wondering if you could also address the development of
inhibition/delay gratification in children? So there's all this
literature linking children's ability to forgo immediate gratification
and later success in life. But when is it a good time to start
fostering the ability to delay gratification? I'm asking because I
don't quite know whether to say no to my 12-month-old when he wants to
mooch off of us (on healthy foods, mind you – like cheese, crackers,
fruit, our dinner). E.g., he'll have eaten a good sized dinner while
we cook, and once we sit down to eat (we give him nibbles – peas,
carrots, etc), he wants to eat off of our plates. Another example:
He'll just have drank 7 oz of milk and I'm getting myself a snack of
hummus and pita, and he basically points at my food and makes noises
at me ("Ba? Ma?" looks at food, looks at me, points) until I give him
something. Is my behaviour just going to foster an inability to delay
gratification, or is he too young for that to even matter?

GREAT question! This is such a HUGE field of research. The question hits on the science of inhibition, executive functioning (basically, cognitive control), emotion regulation, attention difficulties, and so on. So, this is my not-so-subtle way of saying there is NO WAY I can cover that whole area in one or even 5 posts. But let's explore the topic from various angles this week.

The first thing that lept to mind when I read this question was that the reader gives the example of fostering control in her child in a context that deals with food. I'm going to bet that it's because she's read, heard or watched something about the famous psychologist Walter Mischel's research. One of his most famous experiments began in the 1960s and it is well-known as the "marshmallow experiement." The experiment goes like this: Preschool children, one by one, are asked to come into a room that is bare and boring (in which there is also a hidden video camera). The experimenter places one plump marshmallow in front of the child and says, "You can eat this now or, if you wait 15 min and DON'T eat it, you'll get TWO marshmallows to eat later." Then the experimenter leaves the room for (up to) FIFTEEN MINUTES (can you IMAGINE the craziness that this must put most preschoolers in?). The researchers documented how long it took for kids to take a bite out of the marshmallow. Most took a bite around the 3 min mark, way before the 15 min were up; a small proportion of kids actually made it all the way through and somehow managed to resist the temptation. Then a decade and more later, the researchers went back to get data on the grown-up versions of these children (I think they're up to 18 or 20 years later by now). The extent to which preschoolers were able to delay their gratification (so, the number of seconds before they ate the marshmallow or the extent to which they could actually wait all the way through for a "bigger" prize) predicted INSANE stuff, not the least of which was SAT scores and self-control abilities in adolescence and adulthood. Here's one link to the empirical paper of the adolescent follow-up (as usual, with some of these original articles, I can't directly link to the whole paper, just the abstract). And here's a nice summary of the study from The New Yorker.

The experiment has been replicated a bazillion times on various news shows and youtube clips. I'd like to actually point you to my favourite discussion of the topic — I think it could foster some interesting discussions. It is TOTALLY worth your 15 min to listen to this (there are very few things I'd say this about to very, very busy parents). I'm a HUGE RadioLab fan and here's the link to the show they did in which they interviewed Walter Mischel, described the "marshmallow experiment," and summarized some of the coolest findings and their implications. 

We'll talk next about what we can do as parents to foster our children's abilities to delay gratification, which was more to the point of the original question from our reader. We'll also try to consider what might be developmentally appropriate expectations to have about self-control (which I also think is at the heart of the reader's question: a one-year old is a very different story from a 5 year old in this context). Really, we're talking about will power and general self-control here, in its various complex forms. And as much as I KNOW it's a good thing for us to help our children with controlling their impulses, I also know that I, for one, would have gobbled the marshmallow up in the first few seconds it was placed in front of me.

What about you? Would you have waited for the second gooey marshmallow on the horizon or would you just have said f%$# it! and gone for it? What do you think your child would do? Check out some of these INSANELY cute kids and watch how difficult it really can be (this isn't from the original sample, but it captures the feel of the experiment nicely).

– Isabela

More on perseveration…

Check this out!


Are you back? Ok, that was another example of a
perseverative or repetitive behaviour from a task you can try at home with your
baby. The child watches as you hide an object in one of two identical covered
locations. You can create these by just putting two identical covers (cloths?) over
two identical cups or other containers. Show the hiding object to your child
(something small that will fit in the container), then make sure they are
watching while you hide it in one of the cups. Remember to replace the cloth. Repeat
this using THE SAME location (location A) a few times. Try 3 or 4 times. Then
the next time, hide the object (making sure your child is watching) in the
other cup (location B). Replace the cloth cover. What happens? A typical infant
of around 9-10 months of age is likely to search for the object in location A
again, and not in location B, where they JUST SAW YOU HIDE IT!!   What can they possibly be
thinking? You know their eyes work!

This is called the A not B error.  The A not B task was developed by the famous developmental
psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget argued that the tendency to search again at
the A location on the first B location trial was related to the infant’s lack
of understanding of “object permanence” or the idea that an object continues to
exist even when it is out of sight. There has been some debate around why
children commit the A not B error. One of the biggies has
been that your darling, brilliant angel simply  cannot control the urge to reach at location A,
and  instead go with the new information that the object is now at location B.  Sound familiar?  It’s just like on the card-sorting task we talked about
earlier this week. The A not B error is usually overcome by 12 months of age.

Try it. You'll see. If you have a 7-10 month old at home, try it now and try again around 12 months of age. You'll be amazed at the difference. And I'd love to hear about it! For more on the practical implications of this stage, in particular, what it might have to do with sleep problems, check out these older posts.

Please, not that same book/game/song again! I can recite it in my sleep!


Okay, here's my first blogging challenge. I cannot get the author to change from Bella to Tracy. The post below is by me – Tracy. Anyone want to pitch in and help me get this sorted out? You can't say I did not warn you.

Every parent has heard the repeated request “Again!” to read
a favourite book, play a favourite game or sing a favourite song at one time or
another from their young child. How is it, we all wonder, that they can not
only stand, but insist upon, this incessant repetition when most parents are
driven to distraction by it? Turns out, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, that
some of the answer lies in what we know about the developing brain.

Children may like repetition, in part, because they have
trouble stopping it. Cognitive and neuro- scientists talk about a phenomenon
known as perseveration, or the
uncontrollable repetition of a particular
response such as a word or a behaviour. Although perseveration is often
associated with some type of brain trauma in later life (injury, serious
illness etc.), it is also characteristic of the developing brain, especially in
the preschool years. In fact, an important achievement of early childhood is
being able to control, or inhibit, your own behaviour (think: Simon Says).

Developmental psychologists have devised
several tasks for use with young children that provide a glimpse into their
developing capacity for inhibition. In one task, children are shown cards with say,
red and blue flowers and cars. They are asked to sort the cards into two piles,
either according to colour (red here, blue there), or according to shape
(flowers here, cars there). After several sorting trials, children are asked to
switch to sorting to the other dimension (so if they first sorted by colour,
now they have to sort by shape – BTW, it doesn’t matter which one you ask them
to do first). The results of numerous studies show that until about 4 years of
age, children continue to sort the cards according to the first dimension or
the first set of rules. In other words, they PERSEVERATE! What’s striking is
that younger children will perseverate with the first set of rules even when
they are reminded of the new sorting rules and even when they can produce the
new rules every time they are about to sort a card! The argument goes that the
young brain is not yet able to control itself, or to INHIBIT the first
behaviour (sort by the first set of rules) and switch to new a new behaviour
(use the other set of rules).

 Just in case you’re thinking that we have it
all licked by the time we’re 5, think again. It turns out that inhibition takes
some time to develop. And though it becomes easier and easier with age it still
requires effort. So you can inhibit answering that cell phone when you are
driving the car (especially if that might cost you a fine), but if you have a
lot on your mind or get distracted, the effort it takes to inhibit just might
be too much for the already taxed brain and you may find yourself reaching for
it. Sorry officer, it was a failure to inhibit.

The take home message? It’s actually harder TO
STOP doing things than it is to DO them, especially for the really young. So
what does this mean for parenting? Let me give you a couple of things to think
about. My son is 5 and I’m still relying on some of them (it takes time

Since it’s harder to curb behaviour, try to
provide instructions that emphasize what TO DO as
opposed to what NOT TO DO. So easy on the use of “No”, “Don’t” and “Stop”,
especially at the start of a sentence. E.g. When your little one seems bent on
pressing the power button on your computer on and off (I can hear the hard
drive crying now, or is that you crying…), instead of “No! Stop pressing that
button.” try “Look it’s like the buttons your toy laptop computer/cash
register/cell phone etc. See? Now you try.”. Or instead of insisting “Don’t
throw your coat on the floor” when you come in the door try, “Can you put your
coat on your special hook?”.

2.  2. Even when children know the rule or what they
should do, keep in mind that it is still very hard to stop a habitual behaviour
and in a sense, redirect the brain toward acting according to some other
knowledge. So try not to see the repetitive behaviour (e.g. always throwing his
or her coat down every time he or she comes in the door) as defiant. Be
patient. Repeat the rule. Eventually he or she will get it. No really, they
will. And you’ll probably have a better relationship that if you just persisted
with the “No!”s.

As for the pleas for “Again!” in very young
children, it could just be that repeating the same thing again and again feels
good. It’s as though it’s the brain’s natural inclination. It’s what it wants
to do. Keep that in mind the next time you feel lured into the “Wheels On the