Dr. Elaine Heffner: Helping children develop self-control

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Plaquemine Post South

When someone behaves in a way that is socially offensive, observers often comment that he or she is “out of control.” There is a Talmudic saying that no one is the owner of his instincts, perhaps meaning that our instincts operate independently of our will. But living in a civilized society makes it necessary that we learn to control those instincts. Being out of control in that sense is offensive to others.

This idea is meaningful for us as parents. Childhood is a time when instinct, impulses and feelings are expressed so readily in behavior. Children go after the things they find pleasurable, acting in accordance with their desires and feelings without much awareness of the effect of their behavior on others.

Do we ever really lose the impulse to demand or just take what we want? At best we have learned to control the behavior those impulses give rise to and have pushed the wishes themselves down in order to fortify our control over our behavior. So there are strong reactions to others who don’t use those controls over their own behavior.

The same thing often happens in response to our children’s as yet unsocialized behavior. We accept that behavior in infancy but then begin to expect children to control themselves. The problem in thinking that children are out of control is the assumption that the controls are available to them but have not been used.

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 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.

The uncivilized behavior of our children peels back our own layers of civilization. So we get worried about their behavior - and our own - which can lead to a great feeling of urgency about getting everyone’s behavior under control. When that happens, it is easy to stop teaching and look for ways to make children stop doing what they are doing, or start doing what we want them to do.

One way of doing that is to express our disapproval by labeling 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.” Yet 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. Truly being in control means being aware of our feelings yet being confident that we won’t act on them.

Children need help and time to develop those controls. Time means not expecting more of them than they are capable of. Help means providing the control they don’t as yet have. When a baby is crawling toward a light socket, we don’t depend on words to help her stop. We’re there to stop her. In the same way, it doesn’t help a child to keep telling him not to hit his sister. 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. Our children may never “own” their instincts, but hopefully we can help as they begin to master them.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, 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