The Value of Delayed Gratification

“Patience is not passive; on the contrary, it is concentrated strength.”

-Bruce Lee, Chinese-American Martial Artist, Actor, and Director

Delayed gratification can teach kids the value of setting long-term goals. When kids need to wait for things they want, they can increase their “frustration tolerance.” With a high threshold for tolerating frustration, kids can regulate their emotions and be less “reactive” during conflicts or other challenging moments.

During coaching calls with parents regarding natural consequences, Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey discusses the value of delaying gratification for long-term success. When kids can wait for something that they want, they benefit throughout their lives. By teaching kids to be patient, parents can help them develop their strengths and build character.

What is “Frustration Tolerance”?

Frustration tolerance is the ability to overcome challenges, manage uncomfortable emotions, and deal with stress. When frustration tolerance in kids is low, they might struggle while waiting for things, when bored, when put into novel situations, or while learning new tasks. Many kids in recovery might have a low tolerance for frustration. Kids who struggle to manage impulses or who use drugs and alcohol to “mask” uncomfortable feelings might also struggle to develop patience.

When kids have a high tolerance for frustration, they appear calm and relaxed, even during situations that can be stressful. While everyone has their breaking points or life events that might trigger intense emotions, kids with low frustration tolerance typically desire instant gratification, little patience, and extreme reactions to even the slightest change in their daily lives or circumstances.

The New World of Instant Gratification

Kids today grow up in a world where they have quick access to entertainment, information, social contacts, games, and other highly reinforcing stimuli. Like phones, tablets, computers, and gaming systems, electronics might have adverse effects on our child’s expectations for getting what they want. Electronic media can set up the expectation that everything moves instantly and is acquired immediately. Unfortunately, the world does not always give us what we want right away.

Biological Factors Affecting Frustration Tolerance

When our basic needs are not fulfilled, we might have a lower frustration tolerance during those moments. For example, when we are hungry, we are often less patient, more irritable, and quick to anger. When kids have a low frustration tolerance, parents should look out for physiological conditions that might impact a child’s behavior. Consider the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—when the needs at the bottom of the pyramid are unfulfilled; we are in “survival mode.” Our frustration tolerance decreases during survival mode because we might not have slept well or skipped breakfast this morning. 

The first step to building a high frustration tolerance is teaching kids to take care of and identify their basic needs. Schedule things within the home, like:

  • Consistent bed and wake-up times
  • Routine meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • Having snacks along for doctor’s appointments, errands, road trips, or anything that might delay meals
  • Drink plenty of water throughout the day 

Always ensure that the most basic need is met before challenging kids with delayed gratification. If they are hungry or exhausted, they are less likely to build any skills to learn long-term goal planning. When kids know when and how their basic needs will be met, they have predictability and feel more secure in the world.

Working on Higher-Order Thinking

Setting long-term goals is part of our “higher-order” thought processes, as goals require us to plan and predict outcomes. Parents can help their children learn to set goals by starting small and limiting access to preferred items. One easy way to do this is by setting up routines around electronics, like:

  • Turning the wifi connections off at a specific time of day
  • Having a “no phone” rule during family dinners
  • Asking kids to “turn in” electronic devices at bedtime or homework time
  • Use site-blocking software, especially with kids needing electronics for school
  • Set an example by spending less time on electronics as well

Remember to have alternatives in mind for kids. If we take away their electronics, provide access to other activities that will help them increase their frustration tolerance, like books, art materials, sports, outdoor activities, board games, and others. 

When kids are taught to wait for highly reinforcing video games and other electronics, they can begin developing their frustration tolerance to achieve long-term goals. By starting with some of these rules, parents might see a change in their child’s ability to handle discomfort in everyday life—which will help set them up for success in the future.

Delayed gratification can help kids develop their tolerance for frustration and help them set long-term goals. Kids are growing up in a world full of distractions. They have access to a plethora of information and entertainment. Kids no longer have to “wait” for access to many of their wants. They might become irritable and frustrated when bored or under-stimulated. To help kids develop frustration tolerance, parents should keep kids on a routine to ensure that they are eating regular, healthy meals, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Parents can use electronics to see delayed gratification in action. Electronics are highly reinforcing, and by limiting access to these devices, parents might see a change in their child’s ability to handle frustration. Delayed gratification is crucial to developing long-term goals. If your child struggles with challenging behaviors or mental health issues, Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center might be the next step for you. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.

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