The Vending Machine

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Does it seem like your child goes from zero to one hundred every time they don’t immediately get what they want? You may actively be helping your child (ie- walking away from your child to get their snack from the kitchen), but your child only becomes more upset. Why don’t they understand that you are trying to help?

The terrible twos are terrible because children DON’T understand your perspective or subtle intentions. They are egocentric and become upset when things do not go just the way they expected. We are prepared for these outbursts when children are 2 years old.

Once children are 3 our expectations begin to change. 3 year olds begin to balance their wants and needs with others. They understand that other people have their own perspectives and their own unique wants. 3 year olds can also talk about the past and future. They can re-visit (mental time machine!) past experiences to learn new skills for the future.

However, I work with children who are older than 3 and still stuck in a terrible-2 frame of mind. Often, parents and therapists over-focus on teaching vocabulary and first-then concepts. The child learns that when they want ‘goldfish’ they should simply say ‘goldfish’ and then they will get their desired snack.

Let’s step away for a moment and picture a vending machine.  To use this machine you need to learn the ‘code’ – the correct dollar amount and the button to press – in order to get what you want.  You are not thinking about the machine’s feelings, perspectives, experiences, needs, or wants.  You are only thinking about how you can get what you need and want. 

Now imagine that you put in your money and press the button… and the item you want DOES NOT COME OUT. You keep hitting the button, but nothing happens.

How would you feel? You may become angry at the machine or sad and upset. What you thought would happen DID NOT happen. You have no idea why, and even worse, you have no way to communicate with the machine in order to fix the problem.

Most children 2.5 years and up understand other people’s perspectives; they are developing what is called ‘theory of mind’, which becomes fully developed by 4 years of age.

If Mom says, “please hand me those keys”, a child understands that she is making the request because she needs the keys. She is not making the request just to force the child to complete an instruction. If a child says, “can I have a cookie?”, the child will typically study his mom’s face to see what the chances are that she says ‘yes’. The child understands that just because he made the request does not mean his mom will agree. If a child asks for ice cream and dad is busy and says, “Ok, I will get it in a minute”, the child knows that dad has heard him and can wait because Dad will be there soon to help… as long as he doesn’t take too long!

Here is an example situation of what might happen with a child who has not yet learned theory of mind.

The child is hungry; she wants yogurt. She goes to her mother but her mom is on the phone.  The girl says, “yogurt!”

Like a vending machine, she is putting in her money and pressing the button. 

However, the mom holds up a finger and says, ‘ok, just one minute…”.  The girl begins to scream; she feels confused and upset.  She did what she was supposed to do, and the yogurt she expected to have has not been provided.  The mom in response will typically either: 1. Quickly give in and get the yogurt.  2. Ignore the girl and continue with her phone call until she can help.

While making the girl wait may teach her that screaming is not effective, it does not solve the core problem for the breakdown.  The problem is that the girl is thinking of mom like a vending machine.  

The girl does not understand her mom’s intention; her mom wanted to help her, but she was busy for a moment on the phone. The girl is stuck feeling upset because getting the yogurt NOW was the only outcome she had expected to occur.  Vending machines only have one correct outcome.  

But we are not vending machines!!

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