Ever heard of the marshmallow test?
Here’s how it works: Tell kids they can have one marshmallow now — or wait and have two in 15 minutes. (Cookies work too!) According to the famous study first done by psychology professor Walter Mischel 40 years ago (click here for a recreation), children’s ability to wait (or not) says a lot about how well they’ll do in school, with friends, and with family. And, incredibly, waiting for that extra marshmallow can even predict their success as adults — in work and relationships.
If your tweens or teens are the “I want the marshmallow now!” type, don’t worry. The news is still encouraging: Older children can learn ways to improve their self-discipline skills. Keep in mind that a person’s ability to control impulses can take years to develop. In fact, neuroscientists tell us the prefrontal cortex — the “higher reasoning” part of the brain that controls everything from reasoning to empathy — usually kicks into high gear starting at puberty until it’s fully developed around the early twenties.
While their brains are busily working on impulse control, you can also offer ways to help your children rein in challenging emotions and behavior. For you and them, the payoff is enormous. Tweens and teens who learn to put off leisure until finishing their responsibilities, remain calm in demanding situations, and stop themselves before doing something harmful to themselves and others have a greater chance of doing well in school and at home. They also have an important set of skills to become a successful adult.
Lay out expectations
Some tweens and teens react badly because they don’t know what to expect in some situations or, just as important, what will be expected of them. So try to fill kids in ahead of time if they need to wait for something or be asked to do a difficult task: “This Saturday I’d like you to help us clean out the garage. This should take until about noon. But after that, you’ll have the rest of the day free.”
Give them the words
Giving voice to behavioral and emotional outbursts can help older children be more in control. What’s more, articulating what they’re feeling teaches them to recognize difficult feelings before unwisely acting on them: “You seemed unhappy when your friends didn’t invite you to go swimming with them. That must have felt pretty bad.”
This can demand real commitment on a parent’s part. But if children see the adults in their lives exhibiting self-control, they’re more likely to do it themselves.
When you find yourself in a frustrating situation, take the opportunity to come up with a solution to the problem. If you get a parking ticket, count to 10 until the impulse to lose your temper passes. Can’t find your wallet and now you’re late taking the kids to school and going to work? Take a breath and ask out loud where you left it last. When you realize it’s in your other purse, you’re not only modeling problem-solving — you’re also staying in control! A great life lesson for your children to witness.
Take a break
Encourage children to take a break when they seem out-of-control. If they’re building into a rage over challenging homework or chores, suggest they step away from the task until they’ve had time to cool down. If they’re old enough, some kids do best by taking a walk around the block. Others benefit from having a snack or a few minutes of a pleasurable distraction, like shooting hoops or reading a favorite book. Children this age are also old enough to employ simple relaxation techniques like sitting calmly, closing their eyes, and breathing deeply.
Reinforce the positive
When you see your children demonstrating self-control — be it turning down loud music when you ask or practicing an instrument even though they’re missing a favorite TV show — let them know. Tell them you respect and appreciate their efforts. This kind of positive reinforcement will help them think of themselves as people who can successfully control their behavior: “I know you wanted to get together with your friends. You should be really proud you finished practicing and figured out a way to see them tomorrow.”