The Marshmallow In The Room: Developing Self-Control In Children

If I say the word, “marshmallow,” your first thought is probably about smores, camping, and bears. Oh my! (Or, if you are like me, maybe a Veronica Mars reference will pop into your head.) But, after your trip into the forest, you might remember a study published in 1972 by Walter Mischel called the “Marshmallow Test.” In this study, the former Stanford, and now Columbia, Professor, famously asked children, to wait in a room with a marshmallow in front of them. The children were told that they could either wait until their proctor returned, and earn two marshmallows for their trouble, or they could summon the proctor early, and only receive one gooey treat. The idea behind this study was to show differences in self-control among children.

Despite the fact that the researchers took time to build rapport with the subjects, the study has been criticized because of the fact that some kids, particularly those from lower socio-economic classes, may opt to eat the first marshmallow out of distrust for authority. If the child eats the treat because he does not believe that a second treat will actually materialize, then this is more a study of distrust than self-control. Regardless, this test stands as one of the pioneering experiments in the field.

So, how can we get children to learn to delay gratification, and regulate their emotions? We will go into that shortly, but first, we must ask the question, should children learn to control their emotions at such an early age?

There is research to suggest that learning self-control helps people lead healthier, happier lives. But, there is also a framework that believes in allowing children to express all of their emotions, whether pleasant or not. In fact, we know that bottling-up our emotions is not healthy at all. Instead, this technique leads to increased acting-out and anger issues as adults. In fact, adults spend numerous hours in therapy learning to undo what, many times, was instilled in childhood. Teaching kids that “big boys don’t cry,” for example, or “strong girls don’t show when they are upset,” can do more harm than good.

But, for arguments sake, let’s say that the children in question do have a positive outlet by which to express their emotions, and they are still having difficulty controlling their behaviors. Then, in combination with empathic listening, we would teach children to:

  • Count to ten before responding
  • Remove yourself from the situation
  • Work off excess energy with physical activity
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Do yoga for kids
  • Keep a journal
  • Learn to think about the future – how will I feel if I do this vs. that?
  • Learn to identify trigger situations – this person usually makes me angry, I will go out of my way to avoid her.

If taught with the understanding that all emotions are necessary and healthy, these techniques can help children feel more in control of their own responses. This, in turn, can aid in improving self-esteem, decision-making, and overall levels of well-being.

Want more tips on how to encourage your children learn to self-regulate? Contact us. We are here to help.