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Heffner column: Following the rules

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Mineral Daily News-Tribune

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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What do children make of the events in our country since the election? Reactions might match those of the age and developmental stage of the child asked. The issues involved seem like those parents and children face as part of their daily family lives.

In addition to the many skills children master as they develop, a major area of learning relates to social behavior. Families have rules - or expectations - about acceptable behavior, which children are expected to adhere to as they grow.

A mom described the behavior of her two-and-a-half-year-old-son. When he wants something he becomes very emotionally intense and says, “I need it, I really need it.” If he can’t have it, he gets very upset and repeats that he “needs it.” Which doesn’t mean mom has to give it to him.

This is an example of young children’s deeply felt emotions and the way they express these feelings. When this little boy wants something a friend is playing with, he experiences this as “needing” it. It is essential to his sense of well-being at that moment. It is almost as if his life depends on it.

This can be confusing to a parent because from an adult point of view, he doesn’t need it, he just wants it. The emotional intensity, and often the behavior that goes with it, doesn’t seem justified. We may begin to think of needing to teach him that he can’t have everything he wants.

Even as adults, we often say “need” when we really mean “want.” Although we don’t need something for survival, wanting it may make it feel necessary for our emotional well-being. Hopefully though, as adults we don’t have temper tantrums if it’s something we can’t have.

The difference is that young children have not yet mastered their emotions. They experience things in black and white terms; things are either wonderful or terrible, mom is either the best mom in the world, or the Wicked Witch. So often, when a child wants something, he really feels as though he needs it for his survival.

As children grow, developing language and other skills, their protests against parental rules and expectations take the form of other means of defiance. This is the behavior of emerging autonomy. All the children’s endowments, both innate and acquired through experience, have come together to produce the assertion of self that often is expressed as defiance of parents.

An important part of growing up is finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. In this process children test out their own voices and assert their own wills.

Early on children learn that there are also rules outside of the family that are to be obeyed called laws. Toddlers hear, “wait for the light,” as parents hold tightly to their hands. As adolescents they learn they are unable to buy alcohol and as new drivers there are restrictions on speed and driving hours. The consequences of breaking laws are usually more serious than defying parental rules.

How are we now to explain to them what appears to be someone in authority defying expectations and seeking ways to subvert the laws of our society? Why do others in authority appear to react like the mother of the 2-year-old, unable to respond effectively to this behavior?

As parents we try to teach our children that rules and limits on behavior are what enable us to live together in a democratic society. We follow the rules out of self-interest even when we don’t like them.

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.