Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Limit Setting as Containment of Feelings

Two recent experiences have gotten me thinking about the concept of "containment." It is the third component of keeping your child in mind, an approach to supporting healthy emotional development that I describe in my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind. In its most concrete form it refers to the importance of setting limits on your child's behavior. For example, by giving a "time out" every time your child hits, you show him that this behavior will not be tolerated. In doing so, you protect him from the intensity of his feelings by making sure that things do not get out of control. When young children are so consumed with anger and frustration that they hit, they feel out of control, and clear limits help them learn to regulate and manage these difficult emotions. (Combining limits with empathy, as I describe in my previous post, is essential.)

The first experience was a radio interview I had last week on the program Radio 2 Women on WBCR in the Berkshires. My interviewer, Serene Mastrianni, was among the best I've encountered. She had read the book twice, the first time going right to the section corresponding to her own child's age, and then again from the beginning. She had given it some careful thought. She had begun to actively use the book, not only in her own family, but to support friends. She told me the following story.

One such friend, the mother of a 12-year-old boy, had called her in tears. Her son had just had an explosive tantrum and at its height, he screamed at her, " I know you hate me, but I didn't know Dad hates me too!" Her friend was devastated. Serene's response to her hysterical friend was (after, "you've go to to read this book") "sit with him find out what this is all about." So her friend, rather than reacting in anger or hurt, did just that. And with time, the story unfolded that he had been bullied at school. He was a very successful student, president of his class, and he had never had this experience. He was furious with his parents for having failed to protect him, even though in reality they knew nothing about it.

This story combined with the second experience, attending the Zero to Three conference,"the premier conference for professionals dedicated to promoting the health and well-being of infants and toddlers," this past week in Washinton, DC, led me to consider the deeper meaning of the term 'containment." At a lecture I attending on teaching therapists to work with parent-infant pairs, the speaker described containment as "tolerating and sitting with feelings until the meaning unfolds." This is exactly what Serene's friend had done.

Tolerating your child's feelings in this way can be very difficult for a parent, as your child's behavior, particularly when it involves either physical or verbal assault, may provoke intense reactions. But the rewards, as this story shows, are great. Containment requires that, for the moment, you put your own distress aside (the fourth component of keeping a child in mind.) The beauty of Serene's story is that she was able to help her friend with this challenging task. It points out that for parents to be able to keep their child in mind in this way, there must be someone keeping them in mind. That person could be a friend, spouse, family member, pediatrician, or therapist.

"What about positive feelings?" Serene asked. I love this question. Much attention is given in the parenting literature to negative feelings, such as anger, frustration and sadness. But meeting a child’s experience of excitement and joy is in many ways equally important in promoting healthy development. Failure recognize and contain joy may slip under parents' radar as the behavior that follows may not be disruptive. But a child brimming with excitement over an experience with a friend or teacher who is met by a distracted parent may feel unrecognized, as the above child would have been if rather than being listened to he were sent to his room for "talking back." A parent who is depressed may have particular difficulty meeting a child's joy. This is one of many reasons why it is critical for parents who are struggling with depression to get help.

Serene told of a time when her daughter came home in just such an excited state, and she busy with something and did not respond. Later that day, however, Serene recognized what had happened and said to her daughter, "you were really happy when you came home and I wasn't listening. I'm sorry. Come here now and tell me all about it."

In the everyday stress of life, there are many times when a parent will not be available to contain a child's feelings, whether positive or negative, in the way I have described. But this very process of recognizing such a moment of disruption, and subsequently repairing it, is, in itself, essential for promoting healthy emotional development.


  1. I certainly appreciate the imortance of keeping a level head and getting to the bottom of things. On the other hand, my question is this: Are there times when it is important show kids how their words or actions make people feel (us, specifically)?

  2. Thank you so much for the work you are doing, and for the writing about it, especially. I was wondering if you could possibly post something more about effective and appropriate limit setting. I have been thinking about recent difficulties in parenting my 4 year old. I am having trouble setting limits. She then acts out, and I feel upset and out of control. In those moments, I am unable to hold her in mind and help her regulate or change her behavior. She essentially becomes a "bad object" to me and I feel angry and want to withdraw. I feel lost and terrible after these moments because I am at heart, a very loving and connected parent. Many thanks again.