The Marshmallow Test has been around the field of psychology for many years. Basically, they offer a young child a marshmallow, tell them they can eat it now, but if they wait for a little while, they will receive two marshmallows. The difficulty of delaying the marshmallow eating is clear on the faces of the children. Some of them are able to wait, and some of them are not. Some of them cheat a little. The ones who were able to delay gratification had better long term life outcomes. They had lower BMIs and better SAT scores. But secretly, I’ve always been more intrigued by those who “failed” the marshmallow test. The ones who lived in the moment and just did it. Maybe this is why I am a therapist who works on decision making, impulsivity and inhibition.
In my years of working with families impacted by disabilities that have self-control issues, I’ve seen the real life struggles that lack of inhibition, impulsivity and inability to delay gratification creates. The lack of forethought, the constant getting in trouble, the misunderstanding of impact on others, the emotional dysregulation makes life difficult for not only the child, but those around the child. The frustration and the fear of these families is very real with good reason. Depression, substance abuse, poor school performance and a much higher incarceration rate to name a few. The point of therapy addressing self-control is to help that person gain the abilities needed for self-control. The research behind teaching the cognitive abilities needed for self-control is good. Dr. Walter Mischel, (2014) the originator of the Marshmallow Test recently wrote a book saying that self-control comes naturally to some, and the others can learn it. However, the motivation to learn those skills and apply them in situations is really a huge factor in self-control. How do we teach children to trust that a second marshmallow will appear? That waiting for the second marshmallow will make mommy proud? And what about those children who lick, pinch, smoosh and nibble on the first marshmallow? Do they still get the second one?
The abilities I am questioning are dynamic abilities. From a thinking standpoint, the child has to have enough trust, forethought, problem solving and understanding of how other’s may perceive the situation to be able to apply the specific skills that we teach for self-control. In normal development, those abilities come into play around age 4. That does not mean they cannot be developed at a later age. These abilities develop through real life, meaningful decision making and problem solving. At Pathways, we teach parents how to guide their child’s development and maximize opportunities for decision making and problem solving using the Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) program. We work as a team with parents to develop those dynamic cognitive abilities necessary for self-control.
Beyond the cognitive abilities necessary for self-control, there are underlying emotional and automatic impulses that are closely tied in with our ability to control ourselves. Most of us “jump” when we hear a loud noise, or “freeze” when caught by surprise. These reactions are not things that we consider doing, they are just hard wired to happen. But for some people, those sort of fight and flight reactions happen all the time. Sometimes they do not happen enough. When this is the case, the information being carried from the central nervous system to the brain stem is not reliable. The brain stem is instinctively telling the body to avoid or seek more information. Which translates into a frightened looking child hiding and hoarding a marshmallow or a “naughty” child pushing, grabbing, and gobbling down marshmallows.
Activation, stimulation and integration of proper information input from the central nervous system to the brain stem is possible. Dr. Svetlana Masgutova’s (2010) work focusses on organization and integration of the brainstem. Her program is called Masgutova NeuroSensoriMotor Reflex Integration (MNRI). At Pathways we work using MNRI to change the input into the central nervous system to lay the important groundwork for self-control. Our team always begins with the parents. Our highly trained professionals have years of experience to add to finding the best possible therapies to fit the needs of our families.
And now a word from Cookie Monster on self-control: (we can discuss his grammar in a later post)
Masgutova, S. (2010). Integration of Infant Dynamic and Postural Reflex Patterns MNRI Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration for Children and Adults, Warsaw, Poland: Dr. Svelana Masgutova Institute.
Mischel, W. (2014), The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.