Question of the Day: Instant Gratification

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Do you ever have one of those episodes with your children where you wonder, “When is he going to stop doing this?” Your child does something weird, aggravating, or just won’t grow out of a phase? Wish you had someone there to give you the help and advice you’re seeking? Well, your in luck. Breezy Mama is very excited to introduce our Question of the Day piece. A simple (ha!) parenting question with the answer you need. Even more exciting is who will be doing the answering. . . Dr. Fran Walfish, who is an Expert in Parents Magazine’s “Ask Our Experts” column, has agreed to become our “Question of the Day” expert! So send us your questions ( and Dr. Walfish will answer it in a future Breezy post. Now on to today’s question. . .

When do children understand that they can’t have “instant gratification”? For example, while in the car, my 4 year old daughter asked to have a snack. I replied that I didn’t have any food with me, yet she kept asking, over and over again, working herself up into a tantrum. What advice can you give for this?

Children need to be introduced to the concept of “delayed gratification” in the early toddler phase which kickstarts at 18 months.  They must practice wrestling with the experience of “delayed gratification” dozens and dozens of times before they understand they can’t have “instant gratification”.  We do not expect a child to demonstrate and master “delayed gratification” until they are at least 4 years-old.  The way to teach a child to wait for what they want is through empathic narration.  If a child wants the red ball her preschool friend is playing with she might grab it.  The best way to respond is with empathic narration which is talking out loud about what she wants and feels.  You might say (in a genuinely empathic tone of voice),  “You want the red ball and right now Sally is holding it.  It’s hard to wait for your turn.  You get mad when you can’t have the red ball.”  Watch your child’s intensity decrease.  She may not calm immediately but you will see her come down a notch.  Then, you can offer alternatives.  For instance, you can say “Let’s go find the blue ball to play with  while you wait for Sally to finish her turn and give you the red ball.”

Your question poses a bit of added factors – hunger and fatigue.  When your child is hungry and asking for a snack it’s extra hard to wait.  Hunger can lower blood sugar and make tired, as well.  She repeated her demand for “instant gratification” of food over and over which was her way of telling you she couldn’t take no for an answer.  Each time she demanded food it reminded her of what she was not getting.  Her anger and frustration is what escalated into the tantrum.  Once you have an out-of-control 4 year-old you must first help her settle down.  Pull the car over and turn off the ignition for safety.  Join her in the backseat of the car and hold her physically and supportively to contain her.  This helps her keep a lid on her rage.  Tell her you understand she is mad at Mommy for not having food and snacks in the car.  Encourage her to tell you about her strong feelings.  Let her know that next time you will be sure to keep a stash of snacks in the car.
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Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, The Doctors, CBS and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her current book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press, December 7, 2010, is receiving acclaimed reviews. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To order Dr. Walfish’s book ($11.56 on Amazon), click here.

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