Understanding Delayed Gratification With Executive Function Disorders

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Delayed Gratification With Executive Function Disorders

Delayed Gratification With Executive Function Disorders

Since the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment took place in the 1970s, it’s been abundantly clear to professionals that children approach delayed gratification in very different ways and that the skills necessary to succeed at delayed gratification are important for future success. 

Rather than being innate, these skills can be practiced, honed, and strengthened. Working on them with your children can lead to positive outcomes in their school, work, and social lives. This practice may be especially important for those with ADHD and other executive function disorders

What Is Delayed Gratification?

In short, delayed gratification refers to a person’s ability to reject an offer of an immediate reward in order to gain a future reward of greater value or import. The concept is used to gauge how well a person can pursue long-term, highly rewarding goals, especially when they come at the expense of gratification in the short term. 

Delayed gratification exercises many of a person’s executive functions, including their ability to control and inhibit impulses, focus on the long term, plan toward an outcome, organize thoughts and activities, and stay focused on tasks.

Delayed gratification can be seen in everyday situations, such as a child’s ability to do homework first in order to earn playtime, but it can also be seen over longer timescales, such as when an adult forgoes impulse purchases to slowly save money to buy a house. In each instance, the individual is giving up an immediate desire in favor of a goal that cannot be immediately realized.

Why Delay Aversion Is Common in Children

When someone shows an inability to delay gratification or exhibits excessive frustration or agitation at the occurrence of a delay, that is known as delay aversion. Delay aversion appears in people of all ages, but children are often particularly sensitive to delays before expected rewards. 

Some people have a negative association with delayed gratification, such as from being punished for failing to delay reward or complete long-term tasks as children, while others feel averse to delays because of a tendency to discount the pleasure gained from a future reward, which is known as delay discounting.

In children with ADHD, delayed gratification can be particularly difficult. ADHD is, in many ways, a disorder of executive functions, so it isn’t too surprising that ADHD causes issues with delayed gratification. 

People with ADHD, and especially children, are more likely to experience stress during a delay. For many, this results from a lack of stimulation during the period of a delay, while others may find unexpected delays disruptive to their plans or routines. These hurdles are hard for children to overcome without guidance and modeling.

4 Tips for Helping Children Understand Delayed Rewards

1. Break Rewards Into Milestones

It can be hard for children to see the light at the end of the tunnel when undertaking longer projects or experiencing unexpected delays. This can be mitigated by rewarding milestones as they come up. When working on a project that may take days or months, help your child break the task into smaller pieces, and reward them for completing each section.

2. Use Visual Reminders

As a parent or guardian, you can make goals feel more attainable to children by turning their progress into a visual. When a child can see progress, or when they feel that it’s tangible in some way, the waiting process becomes easier. Using calendars and stickers is a popular way to teach kids to evaluate their progress on a daily basis.

3. Prioritize Healthy Reinforcement

One of the most important things you can do to help a child strengthen their ability to delay gratification is to make the process feel positive. Avoid punishing a child for missing a deadline or failing to wait. Instead, encourage them to try again and ask them to reflect on what went wrong the first time. Children learn best when they feel supported.

4. Provide Stimulation

Especially with children with ADHD, it’s crucial to provide stimulation during delays. Turning a delay into a game can help a child control their impulsivity. Reading together, playing or listening to music, and providing a puzzle to figure out during the wait could make all the difference.

Casey Schmalacker

Casey Schmalacker, Vice President at New Frontiers, is a seasoned leader in marketing, sales, and business development. With a dual degree in Government and Law and Economics from Lafayette College, he has spent the past 10 years coaching students, adults, and organizations to improve executive functions, soft skills, and workplace performance. Casey’s approach is rooted in strategic development and a passion for personalized coaching, emphasizing a culture of continuous improvement.

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