“Limit setting has much to do with normal development conceived in terms of ego skills including frustration tolerance, delay of gratification, and impulse control” (A Freud). Awesome, right? That’s exactly what we want for our children that struggle with intense emotional dysregulation. So, especially for our older children, let’s add more limits. The problem is that normal development was derailed.
“Moral development depends on a sufficient amount of early attachment experiences that provide an enduring sense of safety” (Sandler)
Normal healthy development takes a predictable pattern where early childhood experiences find the child’s need for love and care being met. When this consistent pattern is in place, a sense of safety is provided. It is in this context of safety that a parent’s need for limit setting can be accommodated by the child and even sought after as child pursues their natural wish to explore their environment with a wish to be safe (Burlingham and Freud).
When children have experiences early in life where their need for love and care were not being met consistently, safety is jeopardized. Traumatized kids don’t look like they have wish to be safe. They often engage in high risk behaviors that are fueled by the fact that they don’t think someone else can provide them safety. And yet, often when we are looking to improve a child’s behaviors or help their moral development we are thinking in terms of limits instead of safety. However, when a child that has missed out on the crucial developmental milestone of trusting their needs to be met, will find it difficult, if not impossible to use those limits to improve their ego skills. I believe a sense of safety must be securely in place before a child will see those limits as a way to tolerate frustration, learn to delay gratification or help them with their impulse control. Again, these are all the things we need them to acquire to help them regulate their emotions.I think it’s intuitive with an older child to set limits, have rules, expectations, incorporate rewards and consequences but those that have raised children that suffer from early childhood trauma knows how frustrating this part of parenting can be, as the children don’t respond in a developmentally typical pattern. Just because a child, or even an adult, missed important developmental milestones, doesn’t mean they can be skipped or suddenly expected to work backwards. Certainly raising an older child, one is confronted with a more difficult task of creating a safe environment while recognizing appropriate limits.
My caution is simply this: it is often easier to just want to take care of the behavior rather than provide a enduring sense of safety. A feeling of security and safety must be established before we can expect a child to respond developmentally appropriately to limits and strengthen their moral development. This can take years. It’s also why early intervention is key and why we often make our children’s world so small (think infancy). Each time we put them in a situation they can’t handle, it compromises their feelings of safety. Once again, I am not saying limits are not needed, I am just suggesting that next time in a moment of frustration you want to impose more limits consider their need to feel safe. This is more than physical, it’s a psychological sense of safety that builds trust.