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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 8 – before 5th birthday

Why is my child so impulsive and impatient?

Children do not have the same brain hardware as adults and with an under-developed frontal cortex they are not yet able to plan and delay gratification. As children's brains develop after the age of 3-5 years there is a big range in children's ability to wait, delay gratification and be patient.
In Short
Young children and toddlers are not able delay gratification until around 3-5 years of age. This leads to impulsive and impatient behaviour common in toddlers.

The famous 'marshmallow test' followed the lives of children that took part in the test and found that those that were able to delay gratification were rated as more competent teenagers by their parents and the ability to delay gratification correlated with higher SAT scores.

Toddlers and young children certainly can’t be accused of dithering over decisions. One of the first powerful statements (after ‘No!’) you will hear your child say is, ‘Now!’

In order to plan and think about the future, you need to engage your neocortex or prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area isn’t well developed in children and so they find it impossible to delay gratification – they simply don’t have the neural hardware. It isn’t until the ages of 3 to 5 years that the first inklings of this ability begin to surface. Furthermore, the neocortex doesn’t fully develop until adulthood which is why toddlers, children and teenagers struggle to delay gratification.

The development of gratification delay was first reported in the now famous 1960’s marshmallow test by Walter Mischel. He asked four-year-old children if they’d like one marshmallow then added, ‘If you don’t eat it until I get back you can have two.’ There was a big range in behaviour with some children immediately gobbling up the sweet, whilst others employed tactics to help them wait. The interesting tactic used by the children who could wait was that they sidetracked themselves to take their focus away from the delicious marshmallow. They walked and danced around the marshmallow until the psychologists came back.

Toddlers have very limited ability to delay gratification and it can really help to side track them from whatever is overwhelmingly desirable now, for example, ‘Let’s see if we can find your teddy bear so he can have some ice cream too.’ Side tracking is a powerful trick in your arsenal of helping to manage your toddler’s tantrums and emotions. This is because your toddler emotions and thoughts can be very ephemeral and fast running. You can help to move your toddler’s focus and emotion on by drawing their attention to something exciting or positive, this can literally be about anything; a cat walking along a fence, the moon in the sky during the day or even a well-timed question that helps your toddler to move their attention away from the source of frustration.

Although we can’t expect toddlers and young children to be very good at delaying gratification, we can always help them to have little practices to train the ‘muscle’. This can be as simple as getting them in the habit of eating cake after their main meal (which is better for their dental health) or feed the dog before they go to the park. This helps your toddler to see time in bite size pieces and have a greater sense of what’s happening now and then what will happen next.

We should have compassion when faced with a toddler’s inability to delay gratification. Whilst we might pride ourselves as grown-ups on holding off eating a treat until after our dinner, we adults can be very gluttonous when it comes to things like box sets of top drama series. We put our toddlers to sleep and then gorge on perhaps three or four episodes in one go. Try and remember this when you get frustrated with your child’s ejaculations of ‘Now!’ and ‘More!’

How brain development affects child behaviour

Unlike children, we have a fully-functioning frontal cortex which allows us to plan and make decisions as well as having memories that reinforce our understanding that delaying something can actually benefit us. Toddlers are only just beginning to lay down memories of when delaying gratification paid off and they certainly don’t have a fully formed frontal cortex. They are at the beginning of a long journey that we all face, to learn to control our impulses. As parents we can help them by modelling good impulse control ourselves, e.g., not mainlining through an entire packet of biscuits in one go. It’s also important to empathise with them and understand that cognitively, impulse control and delaying gratification is beyond their mental ability at this age. Toddlers are much less able to plan and make decisions now about the future than even four-year-old children. Full brain development isn’t thought to occur until the age of 30 so it’s a long slow process for all of us.

As you would expect from the name – our pre-frontal cortex of our brain sits behind our forehead. The frontal lobe (or pre-frontal cortex as it’s sometimes called) processes all our conscious thoughts and voluntary behaviour, so the frontal lobe is actively ‘in control’ when we are talking, painting and solving a problem like a jigsaw. Your toddler’s frontal lobe began to develop in the second half of their first year (6-12 months), this is driven and drives their communication and physical development.

The frontal lobe doesn’t fully mature until 30 years of age and slightly regresses in the teenage years, which may explain why some teenagers seem to behave a little like toddlers with increased impulsivity, lack of planning and risky behaviour. Physiologists have estimated (using PET scans) that 50 percent of the calorie intake of a 5-year-old is diverted to power frontal lobe – the control centre of the brain.

Try to remember that your toddler has a very rudimentary pre-frontal cortex so they simply don’t have the brain power or complexity to executively control their behaviour and emotions.

It can really help you as a parent to appreciate your toddler’s very un-adult behaviour by remembering our brains are different.

Delay of gratification – The Marshmallow Test

Now, you don’t have to do this with marshmallows but you do need to choose a visually appealing treat e.g., chocolate buttons or strawberries (but only if this will work as a strongly desirable stimulus).

Put your chosen treat on a plate on a low table and explain to your toddler that she can eat the treat if she wants but if she waits until you come back she can have two treats.

Leave the room (but try and observe if possible to supervise and see her coping strategy).

Return in 2-5 mins (though Mischel waited up to 20 mins).

Does your child choose to eat an immediate treat or wait so she can have two?

If she waited, tell her she did really well waiting for her and give her the prize treat. If she didn’t wait, explain that next time if she can wait she will get double the treats.

Most children will eat the treat until they are around 4 years old. The point of this test is to illustrate how limited your toddler’s ability to delay gratification is. Try to bear this in mind when you get frustrated with their impatience.

Long-term differences between children that can and can’t delay gratification.

Several studies have looked at the differences between individuals that could delay gratification and those that couldn’t over time. In one study, children who could delay gratification were described more than 10 years as significantly more competent teenagers by their parents. A 1990 study, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores. Finally, brain imaging studies of the original Standford children that participated in Mischel’s original study reported that when they reached mid-life there were key differences between those that could delay gratification and those that couldn’t in two areas of the brain. The prefrontal cortex was more active and engaged in the individuals that were successful delayers and the ventral striatum (an area of the brain linked to addictions and addictive behaviour ) had significantly different activity between the high and low delayers.

These studies indicate the ability to be patient and delay gratification are crucial important life skills in children and adults.

Top Tip: Toddlers don’t have a good handle on time. So, instead of saying she can have the treat in 10 minutes put it into a context she will understand. For example, ‘You can have your treat after we have fed the cat and I’ve washed the dishes.’
References and further reading

Casey, Somerville, Leah, Gotlib, Mischel, et al (August 29, 2011). “From the Cover: Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (36): 14998–15003. doi:10.1073/pnas.1108561108. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 3169162. PMID 21876169. Archived from the original on October 4, 2011.

Eigste, Mischel, Casey et al (2006). “Predicting Cognitive Control From Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood” (PDF). Psychological Science 17 (6): 478–484. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01732.x. PMID 16771797. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 22, 2007.

Mischel (1958). Preference for delayed reinforcement: An experimental study of a cultural observation. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 56, 57-61

Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B.; Raskoff Zeiss, Antonette (1972). “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204–218. doi:10.1037/h0032198. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 5010404

Shoda, Philip et al (1990). “Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions”. Developmental Psychology 26 (6): 978–986. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.26.6.978. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 4, 2011.

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.