The issue of control comes up in so many of the things that we think about and are concerned about in raising our children. Childhood is a time when instincts and impulses are expressed so readily in behavior. Children go after the things they find pleasurable and strike out when denied what they want. They act in accordance with their desires and without much awareness of the effect of their behavior on someone else.
Do we ever really lose the impulse to demand or just take what we want? We probably never “own” those impulses. At best we have learned to control the behavior those impulses give rise to, and then have pushed the wishes themselves far down inside in order to fortify our control over our behavior. So there are strong reactions to others who don’t have or don’t use those controls over their own behavior. We harshly condemn them and reassure ourselves that we would never act that way.
The same thing often happens in response to our children’s primitive, as yet unsocialized and uncivilized behavior. During infancy we are accepting of babies’ need to function in accordance with their instincts: to suck, to cry, to be held, even when providing this care interferes with our own wishes and needs. But when babies turn into children, we start to think about “setting limits” on what now seems like infantile behavior.
Of course, it is appropriate for children to start to learn about controlling their impulses, and for us to start to teach them to do so. The question is how to do that. Often this process involves our own self-control as much as it does our child’s. We sometimes talk about the capacity of children to bring us down to their level. We find ourselves screaming in response to their screaming, at times even hitting in response to their hitting. A child’s lack of control can make us feel out of control ourselves.
When that happens we start to look for ways to make children stop doing what they are doing, or start doing what we want them to do. One familiar way of doing that is to label such behavior “bad.” The problem is that children don’t distinguish between their behavior and themselves. If their behavior is “bad,” that means they are “bad.” Their feelings lead to such behavior, so the feelings begin to seem not only “bad,” but dangerous. Controlling the behavior can get mixed up with not feeling the feelings.
But an important part of developing self-control is being able to tell the difference between feelings and behavior. Having certain feelings doesn’t mean we are going to act on them. If we can’t tell the difference, having those feelings doesn’t feel safe. Truly being in control means being aware of our feelings yet being confident that we won’t act on them. We might feel like hitting a child who is getting our goat but know we won’t do it.
Children need help and time to develop those controls. That time involves our not expecting more of them than they are capable of. Help means providing the control they don’t as yet have. It doesn’t help a child to keep telling him not to hit his sister or not to take his little brother’s toys. We have to provide the intervention that will help him actually control those impulses when they are getting the better of him.
Feeling an impulse and not acting on it is what gives one the experience of self-control. We can help children as they begin to gain mastery.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.