Self-Control

Is Forced Politeness Bad For Kids? Teach This Instead

Research shows that emotional suppression depletes kids' self-control resources.

Posted Jan 20, 2020

Life is disappointing sometimes, even in kindergarten. The lunchroom runs out of chocolate pudding, parents break promises, and best friends are sometimes not available. New research conducted on 148 kindergarten students reveals that having to regulate disappointment may lower performance on cognitive tasks.

This experimental study randomly sorted children into an experimental group—children who were disappointed before solving a cognitive executive functioning task and a control group of children who were not disappointed. Group comparison showed that only children who were disappointed but faked positive emotions (Thanks for the gift! I love it!) showed impaired performance on the subsequent cognitive task. Children who were not disappointed, children who seemed uninterested in the gift, and children who were disappointed but expressed their negative emotions did not show impaired performance.

How to Disappoint Kids: A Guide for Grinches

Yes, I really do work in a field that does this! While I prefer to make grown men cry, there are psychology researchers out there who apparently enjoy stealing candy from babies. So, here’s how to disappoint a little kid. All it takes is a bit of advance preparation.

The disappointing gift paradigm is as follows: The researcher shows four small gifts to children (such as a small toy) as well as a disappointing item—a foam square. The researcher asks the children to order the toys in order of preference. The children are then told that the names of the gifts are being written on a card. Once the children solve the maze, they can randomly choose a card from the experimenter’s hand, and that indicates which gift they will receive.

Of course, in the disappointing gift paradigm, the “randomly selected gift” always is the foam square. Life can be disappointing, even when you’re five. In the current study, researchers then recorded the child’s response. Did the child thank the experimenter for the gift, express no emotional reaction at all, or demonstrate distress?

The control group of participants received one of their top choices.

After that, the Minnesota Executive Functioning Scale was administered.

Why Do Kids Who Fake Positive Reactions Have Lower Scores?

There are a lot of micro-skills that make up the larger category of “self-regulation.” A child with good self-regulation can adaptively manage emotions and act in a goal-directed manner, even when dealing with unpleasant emotions. A poor self-regulator has a much harder time doing this.

One component of self-regulation is self-control—actively choosing to express a less likely response. For example, the likely response when faced with disappointment is to protest loudly. The less-likely response is to politely say, “Thank you for the gift.” It takes a great deal of self-control to actively choose the less-likely response when we’re adults—think of how much self-control it can take to choose to take the stairs instead of the elevator, to choose kale over chocolate, or to speak calmly instead of yelling.

Have you ever felt exhausted after exerting too much self-control? The ego-depletion model of self-control posits that kids are the same way—if a child exerts too much self-control, it will reduce her executive capacities for other tasks.

Emotional Suppression Is Costly

Think of emotional suppression as using the word “Don’t” in the context of expressing an emotion.
Don’t laugh. Don’t yell. Don’t cry. Don’t shut down.

Oleksandra Naumenko/123RF
Actively practicing internal emotional expression and handling disappointment with a child can help with self-control
Source: Oleksandra Naumenko/123RF

Emotional suppression is a particularly costly self-regulation strategy. It tends to use up a lot of self-control. Ever find something inappropriately funny? I know I have! It’s extremely hard to stop ourselves from laughing in that situation, right? Even if we do succeed, it involves Herculean efforts, and it can be exhausting. Think of that the next time you ask your toddler to thank Grandma nicely for the underwear as a holiday gift.

Training the Self-Control Muscle

The children who expressed their disappointment with the gift did not show subsequent decline in scores on the executive functioning test. When teaching children to cope with disappointment, it’s important to train them not to suppress, but rather to internally express, their emotional state.

Daniel Siegel suggests teaching children to “Name It to Tame It.” Telling children to name their emotions, even internally, can help remove some of the fatigue from self-control.

In social situations, the self-control muscle is frequently overloaded. That’s why it’s important to rehearse socially challenging situations in advance. (Click here and here to see examples of this approach.)

Teaching a child to internally say, “I’m really disappointed by this gift. I know that if I tell Mom quietly later, she’ll help me problem solve,” can reduce the strain on the self-control muscle, while also increasing its capacity. Using less self-control, and succeeding, is analogous to lifting a mildly challenging weight until the muscle’s capacity expands.

Rather than suppressing their emotions completely, children can be taught to internally express them, and then ask a parent for help.

“I’m proud of the way you politely thanked Grandma for the underwear. That gave her good feelings. You deserve a reward. How about that Paw Patrol game you really wanted?”

Actively practicing internal emotional expression and handling disappointment with a child can help her increase her self-control capacity.

Just to Make Us Feel Better:

At the end of the disappointing task paradigm, the children were offered the opportunity to exchange their disappointing gift for one of the other choices. All the children chose to trade in the foam block for a toy. This served two purposes—the researchers could confirm that the children who didn’t express it were indeed disappointed by the foam block, and we can all feel a bit better about the kindergartners who helped us understand how self-control works. (OK, I work in a profession that only temporarily steals candy from babies. Now I feel better.)

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020

References

Niamh Oeri, Claudia M. Roebers, Regulating disappointment can impair cognitive performance in kindergarten children: Individual differences in ego depletion, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 190, 2020, 104728, ISSN 0022-0965, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2019.104728.

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