Toddlers and Waiting

wait timer

You’re trying to finish a phone call or have stopped to chat with someone you met while out shopping.
This is the very moment your toddler decides they desperately need your attention!

So, you say, “Wait–I’m busy.”

This often causes an escalation of attention seeking behavior because toddlers don’t yet know how to “wait.”

What does “wait” mean, anyway, and how do we do it as adults?
When we are “waiting” in line at the grocery store, for example, how many of us just stop and stare into space?

We are much more likely to pull out our phones, read a magazine from the rack, review our shopping list, listen to music on our headphones, etc.

In other words, waiting usually means distracting ourselves with an activity. But when we tell toddlers to wait, we often leave them to their own devices to figure out how to distract themselves.

A study from a German research foundation, published in the journal Child Development, helps us understand how to help toddlers learn to wait.

1) Toddlers prefer distraction activities that fit their temperament.
Those with calm temperaments will play quietly with provided activities. In the study, for example, these children were happy with cup stacking. Children with more active temperaments were able to distract themselves with movement activities (in the study, running around with a play lawn mower).

2) Toddlers can learn waiting strategies from observing their parents and strangers actively waiting.
In the study, toddlers who had seen adults playing while they were waiting were able to distract themselves more than children who had not observed anyone waiting.

The takeaway: children, just like adults, can learn to wait by incorporating activities that fit their temperaments. Adults can help by first understanding that “waiting” almost always involves a distracting activity. Secondly, adults can role model to children how they wait. Children as young as toddlers will be able to learn from examples.

The study:
Johanna Schoppmann, Silvia Schneider, Sabine Seehagen. Can you teach me not to be angry? Relations between temperament and the emotion regulation strategy distraction in 2‐year‐olds. Child Development, 2021; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.13682