No one likes to wait, and for toddlers, it's pretty hard to do. New research suggests, however, that some purposed teaching of how to occupy themselves while waiting may be beneficial, as toddlers generalize observed behavior that can have positive outcomes.

Toddlers aren't known for their strong emotional regulation skills. When they want something, they want it. Actually not quite unusual for most of us, however mature brains are capable of more than a toddler's can regulate.

So researchers looked at whether a toddler's temperament (based on parental questionnaire responses) had anything to do with their emotional regulation while waiting (over a three-minute period), and whether learning about distraction techniques made a difference.

A group of two-year-olds was studied, along with their parents. The toddlers were made to wait for three minutes, and the wait ended in a small gift of candy. While the children were waiting, parents interacted very little, allowing children to show temperament as well as strategy while they waited. They were allowed toys to occupy themselves--a stack of cups as a 'calmer' toy and a toy lawnmower as a more 'active' toy.

The research team found that children who were described by their parents as calmer tended to occupy themselves by playing calmly, such as stacking the cups, and the toddlers who were characterized by their parents as more active tended to play in an active manner, such as running around with the lawnmower. This is how both groups of toddlers (calmer/more active based on parental questions) occupied time and regulated negative feelings about having to wait for the three minutes.

Then, the research team also looked at how they could additionally help toddlers with their regulation during waiting. They showed the children how to distract themselves with either quiet or active playing activities, while children in a control group performed a different task altogether--one that had nothing to do with waiting. All the children were then made to wait a second time for three minutes.

The research team found that the toddlers who had observed an adult playing while waiting distracted themselves more than the children who had not observed anyone waiting. In effect, the children copied the adults playing/distracting to kill time as a coping strategy for their disappointment about waiting. Interestingly, the team found no difference in whether a child's temperament matched the demonstrated playing style (quiet or active).

The researchers believe that observation about learning strategies themselves is more important than the tangible activity when it comes to distraction during waiting. They also concluded that toddlers can also learn from both parents and strangers how to regulate their emotions through activity while they are waiting. Additionally, they concluded that, left to their own devices, children prefer activities that correspond to their temperament, however, they were also able to learn to distract themselves by observing a stranger and generalized the observed behavior.

This means that while you may not be able to get your two-year-old to wait patiently every time you need to, taking some time to teach distraction methodology during waits (in line at the grocery store, while a friend is playing with a toy they want, etc.) may help them have better emotional regulation in other situations as well.

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