Delayed Gratification: How to Teach Children to Control Their Impulses?

Delayed gratification is a really useful skill that brings children closer to personal, social, and academic success. Learn more today!
Delayed Gratification: How to Teach Children to Control Their Impulses?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 02 May, 2023

Children are spontaneous, energetic, and impulsive. They often act without a filter and have difficulty waiting and planning their behavior. However, this tendency to be carried away by their immediate desires isn’t always the best option. It can have a negative impact on academic performance, social relationships, and even self-esteem. This is why it’s important to help children develop delayed gratification.

This concept refers to the ability to postpone immediate pleasure in favor of a greater reward or benefit in the future. We all apply it every day. For example, when we choose to go to work even though we’d rather stay home or when we control our impulse to yell at someone so as not to damage the relationship. For children, these decisions are more complicated to make. However, we can teach them how to do it.

Delayed gratification depends on a child’s maturity level

First, it’s important to understand that this isn’t an ability that we’re born with. Naturally, younger children tend to follow their impulses and seek immediate gratification, so they can’t inhibit their behavior. In fact, for children under the age of five, this is really complicated.

This difficulty is related to brain development and the cognitive and emotional maturity of children. Tasks such as planning, goal anticipation, and impulse control depend on a brain area known as the prefrontal cortex, which doesn’t finish developing until after puberty.

With this in mind, we can’t expect children to act like adults and be able to behave as expected. Parents and educators need to be flexible and understand their brain functioning. However, they should guide them to train and improve this ability.

A toddler biting into a cupcake.
At an early age, it’s difficult to make decisions that involve postponing pleasure or impulse. Therefore, be flexible with children, but guide them to train and improve delay of gratification.

Why is it important to train this ability?

Although it may seem irrelevant, delayed gratification can have a great impact on your child’s life, both in the short and long term. This was demonstrated in the most famous experiment on the subject, conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel. In it, several preschoolers were placed in front of a treat and told that the researcher was going to leave the room. If, when he returned, they still hadn’t eaten the candy, they’d be given another one as a reward.

The children’s reactions varied widely. Some of them didn’t even think about it and devoured the candy. Others tried to hold out, but couldn’t resist the temptation. A third group managed to wait and postpone their desire to get the promised reward. To do this, they used all kinds of strategies, such as sitting on their hands or moving away from the candy.

This experiment revealed, on the one hand, that younger children had greater difficulty waiting than those who were more mature. But, in addition, researchers followed up on participants and found that, years later, those who were better at waiting enjoyed higher self-esteem, better social relationships, and greater academic and work success.

Teach your child to apply delayed gratification

Knowing how to apply delayed gratification is crucial for setting long-term goals, living in society, and having control over thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. All children improve in impulse control as they get older. However, if they don’t receive appropriate stimulation and guidance, progress may be limited.

So, if you want to help your child develop and apply this important skill, here are some tips and guidelines that you can apply:

  • Help them keep the long-term benefits in mind. Before acting or making a decision, it’s important for them to analyze the pros and cons, and to question what they stand to gain and lose by acting in a certain way. This is a step that children usually skip, but we can get them used to thinking before acting if we accompany them in this from a young age.
  • Distraction techniques can be useful for delaying gratification, as they allow little ones to avoid focusing their attention on what they want so badly. Teach your child to direct the focus to other people, objects, or activities that allow them to distract themselves and not fall into what they want to avoid.
  • Controlling the environment is also key. It’s easier to avoid temptation if we don’t see it constantly. So, for example, taking the cell phone out of the room while studying will allow them not to be tempted to always grab it and waste time with it.
  • Regulating emotions is a great help because by doing so, your child won’t fall prey to their impulses and feelings. For example, when they feel angry, they can practice some simple breathing exercises before acting out.
  • You can also teach them self-motivation to make waiting easier. If they often have the ultimate reward in mind, they’ll be better able to forget about immediate gratification. When tempted, encourage them to visualize how they’ll feel when they get the long-term benefit.
  • Teach them to break their distant goals into smaller ones. As they accomplish each one, they’ll feel that much-needed dose of reward and be able to continue working toward their greater purpose.
A child with ADHD escaping from a table during a therapy session.
For children with ADHD or other conditions, it’s more complicated to control their impulses. However, with guidance and professional help, they can improve in this area.

Training and guidance are key

Delayed gratification is a really useful skill that brings children closer to personal, social, and academic success. Parents and teachers can help them to learn it through small tips, guidelines, and exercises. However, there are some children for whom it can be particularly difficult, such as those with ADHD. Therefore, it may be necessary to contact a professional to guide the techniques and provide the necessary tools to help improve impulse control.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Dumontheil, I., Burgess, P. W., & Blakemore, S. J. (2008). Development of rostral prefrontal cortex and cognitive and behavioural disorders. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology50(3), 168-181.
  • Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control. Little, Brown and Co.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.