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Healthy distractions help toddlers who have trouble waiting, study finds

Experts say kids’ temperaments are an important factor when it comes to picking a strategy

Toddler playing with blocks
Photo (c) d3sign - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum explored some of the most effective ways for parents to get toddlers to better handle having to wait. According to their findings, toddlers’ temperaments are an important consideration when it comes to picking the right distraction.  

“In the present study, toddlers chose a distraction strategy (active vs. calm) matching their temperamental activity level,” the researchers wrote. “This finding suggests that it could be helpful to give toddlers a choice of toys with different activity levels to help them regulate themselves when they are expected to handle a mildly distressing situation on their own.” 

Teaching toddlers emotional regulation

For the study, the researchers had nearly 100 two-year-old toddlers and their parents participate in a series of experiments that tested the children’s ability to wait.

In the first trial, the toddlers were told to wait three minutes for a small piece of candy. They were given two different toys to help them pass the time before they received their prize. One of the options was a lawnmower toy, which was considered more active; the other was a set of cups, which the researchers said was more calming. 

Ultimately, the team saw a direct correlation between the children’s temperament and how they chose to use their waiting time. 

“We observed that children who were described by their parents as rather calm tended to occupy themselves by playing calmly, such as stacking the cups, and the toddlers who were characterized by their parents as rather active tended to play in an active manner, such as running around with the lawn mower and thus managed to regulate their negative feelings well,” said researcher Joanna Schoppmann. 

How parents can be role models

In the second trial, the researchers were interested in understanding how parents can support their toddlers when it comes time to wait for things. Again, the children were waiting for three minutes for a small piece of candy. But this time, one group had the researchers demonstrate different ways that they could entertain themselves while they waited. A second group played for the entirety of the three minutes with no mention of waiting. 

While this trial showed no relationship between the toddlers’ temperaments and how they distracted themselves, the researchers learned that parents can serve as models for easing their toddlers into waiting. When the children in the experiment saw other adults playing or distracting themselves, they were more likely to do the same -- in any capacity -- during the three minutes. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope this work can help parents better manage their toddlers so they can learn how to control themselves when having to wait for something. 

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