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Understanding and Self-control: Is There a Connection?

Do children learn self-control through discipline or love?

Last month I received a query from a distinguished professor of neuroscience asking whether there is any literature linking mentalization to self-control. This was a reminder of how segregated different fields of psychology sometimes are; theories and concepts fundamental to one research area may be invisible to those working in other areas. For this reason, I thought it worthwhile addressing this question for the broad readership of Psychology Today, accepting that the concepts will be familiar to many readers already.

The story behind the connection between mentalizing and self-control begins with very early interactions between infant and caregiver. As a carer responds to an infant’s sounds and gestures, the infant moves from distress to comfort; this experience of changing moods in the context of a close relationship offers the infant a template for what will eventually become affect regulation, or self- management. In addition, the carer’s contingent responsiveness provides an experience base for highly sophisticated concepts of people as having internal feelings that can be expressed physically and understood by others.

When a baby feels pain or distress her entire body demonstrates how overwhelmed she is by these feelings. Her shoulders and chest contract; her legs thrash, her cries are body-deep. When a carer responds, not by crying herself, but with an expression of interest and concern, composing her face in imitation of some features of distress – perhaps an exaggerated frown and furrowed brow – the carer partly mirrors the baby’s mental state but she also transforms it. In this often automatic but nonetheless sophisticated version of imitation, a carer makes it clear that by mirroring her baby’s feelings she is not expressing her own feelings, but looking into her child’s.

This complex response has been called “marked mirroring” by Peter Fonagy and others included in what Fonagy has on occasion referred to (positively and proudly) as the “mentalizing mafia”. When this marked mirroring is sensitively attuned to the infant’s feelings and desires, it transforms an infant’s experience into a concept about a mental state. The carer shows an infant that he has feelings, and lives among other people who also have feelings, and a separate mental life of their own. These separate people can connect to him understand his inner states. Hence the infant takes the first steps towards the ability to mentalize – that is, identify his own thoughts and feelings through a relationship that assures him that his internal world can be understood, and that others are willing to help him regulate fear, pain, hunger and other distress.

The experience of moving with a caregiver’s help from that overwhelming distress to calm is called by Allan Shore “rupture and repair”, and plays an important role in learning to regulate emotions, to gradually contain them and buffer stress. (pedsinreview) The new-born initially borrows or draws upon the emotional control and understanding of a caregiver to withstand the ebb and flow of emotions; and through this supported regulation learns the first steps in emotion management – or affect regulation, as it is often referred to; and affect regulation is now seen as a primary developmental task of the first two years of life. As Fonagy notes, “None of us is born with the capacity to regulate our own emotional reactions. A dyadic regulatory system evolves where the infants’ signals of moment to moment changes in their state that are understood and responded to by the caregiver thereby achieving their regulation.”

Early interactions with caregivers shape the circuits of the infant brain - circuits that are used to recognize thoughts, feelings wishes and desires, and to understand one’s own and other people’s behaviour as informed by these states. Babies learn very quickly about complex emotional expressions. Within the first nine months babies can tell the difference between expressions of happiness and sadness and anger. For example, Alison Gopnik has shown that babies can recognize that a happy-looking face with a smile and crinkly eyes goes with the chirp of a happy tone of voice. And it is during this time too that infants start building up the conceptual framework to think about themselves and other people as having inner feelings and emotions and needs that can be expressed by their physical selves and understood by others.

This capacity to reflect and understand is crucial to managing emotions. An infant who does not have this positive stimulation, who does not experience that conversational dance with a caregiver, can suffer as much harm as a baby who is subject to abuse. The brain of a baby who is neglected, just like the brain of a baby who is abused, will be doused with a very different mix of biochemical that inhibit the growth of those neural circuits that help us understand and manage emotions.

This model feeds into the intriguing question as to why nursery school children’s ability to exert self-control (and resist eating that marshmallow, cookie or pretzel straight away) is associated with professional and personal success in adulthood. Some people argue that these outcomes, though shown to be independent of social class and education, must be related to parental discipline. However, the important variable may involve the quality of understanding rather than style of discipline. Trust is one issue: if a child has no reason to believe the adult’s promise that a reward will be forthcoming, then why resist immediate gratification? After all, the promise of a larger reward may not be kept. (

Alongside and underlying a child's pragmatic assessment of whether the promise for future reward is offered in good faith is the question as to whether a child has the neural software in place for impulse control. Those early experiences of rupture and repair, and of marked mirroring, provide a impulse buffers and reflection channels; hence mentalization facilitates self-control. A child who is able to reflect on what she is feeling, why she feels as she does and how other people’s thoughts and feelings inform their behaviour is more likely to be able to manage her own feelings – and more likely to become the adult who thrives in personal and professional life.

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