Helping children develop self-control

Dr. Elaine Heffner

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.