September 18th, 2017
Has your child just started school? Some kids will be sailing in and making a beeline for the ‘creative corner’ or heading off to play with other kids without a backward glance, while others will be hanging back tentatively or even having to be extricated, crying, from their parent’s leg. I hope the latter isn’t you but if it is you may be asking why can’t my child be in the first category, or even the second? Of course the answer is, to some extent, temperament, but the other factor that may have a bearing is age. If your child has a summer birthday they will of course be one of the youngest in the year and therefore less mature physically, socially and emotionally.
All my own children were born in the summer, Gemma having the latest birthday, in August. But after a briefly tearful start she got on the best while her May and June born brothers struggled more and their immaturity showed up more clearly. So what are the factors at play here? From my example you might conclude it was gender but as usual it is the convergence of many things. Gemma was, and is, an extrovert who is socially adept. She was also academically able. Her brothers are introverts and both dyslexic so found life in the classroom harder. Environment makes a great deal of difference as you’d expect. Christian’s struggles in the classroom and his avoidance strategies were mistaken for misbehaviour and he got in trouble a lot thus reducing his self-esteem and causing more poor behaviour. Whereas Sam’s difficulties were recognised and he got the help he needed. It doesn’t help if your young child is actually tall for their age, as mine were, as adults’ expectations are often pitched too high.
Research has shown that kids who are young in their year do less well academically and are less confident than their older peers. And the impact of month of birth persists into higher education https://www.ifs.org.uk/wps/wp1006.pdf
Children who are less physically mature can also have a disadvantage in sport and may get disheartened while playing against their more coordinated, stronger peers. They will need encouragement to keep trying.
That is the lottery of the educational system as it is currently but since we know our younger kids are going to find it harder we can be prepared for that and help them.
And what about temperament?
If you have a child who is intense, sensitive, reactive, persistent, slow to adapt, high energy and can be a bit negative in outlook he is going to need a lot of support to manage school. If he is also an introvert he will need quiet time to restore his energies. Our temperaments are our default position for how we react to the world but they are not cast in stone. Parents can help children to appreciate their temperaments and learn to manage them. So for example, when your child says she wants cake at bedtime and she’s already brushed her teeth, you can say “You really, really want that cake don’t you? When you want something you’d like to keep going and going until you get it. That’s called persistence and that can be a wonderful quality. For instance if you wanted to get good at playing netball (insert whatever activity she’s keen on here) you’d practice and practice your ball skills until you mastered them. It’s really annoying for you that mummy has said you can’t have the cake. It’s my job to look after you and make sure that you stay healthy so sometimes I have to say you can’t eat something you’d like to or that you need to go to bed or to put a jumper on when it’s cold…. Do you remember we talked about how your brain works? This bit at the front tells you what’s sensible to do. But the bit in the middle tells you what you’d like to do. So your middle brain is yelling cake, cake, cake (ham it up here) and your front brain can hardly be heard saying ‘do what mummy says’. As you get older your front brain’s voice will get stronger and mummy and daddy will help you to listen to it…..This morning my middle brain was saying just ten minutes more sleep but my sensible front brain told me I needed to get up or we wouldn’t get to school and work on time.”
At four years old all children have immature ‘front brains’, that’s their pre-frontal cortex which regulates the emotions and impulses originating in the ‘middle brain’ or limbic system, and it really helps them to understand a little bit of how their brain works. It also helps us to stay calm when we realise that a poor behaviour is likely the result of an impulse or a feeling, not as a result of a character flaw. And when we stay calm our children do too. Less stress in their lives makes it more likely that they can handle school well.
Good luck with the next few weeks and we wish your child a very happy school life. Look out for our workshop on Raising Boys on October 3rd Raising Girls on October 31st.
September 13th, 2015
As the children go back to school you may be thinking of all the areas associated with school where you end up battling with your kids. Often we're told to pick our battles but I say don't pick battles with your children. Battles are between enemies and result in a win/lose situation. If you win, your child loses. We often forget this when we talk about not letting our children ‘get away with things’ and not letting them win.
Parents do need to provide discipline for children because their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed (and won’t be until their 20s). So we have to lend them our higher brains with their greater capacity for rational thought and impulse control. We are not our children’s enemy –we are their teacher. The purpose of discipline is not to win, or to get revenge, but to teach. Effective discipline comes from influence over time rather than the exercise of power in the moment.
We need to make sure we avoid the terminology of battles even in our own minds because language shapes our experience and the more we talk or even think about battling with our kids the more that will happen. That’s how our brains work.
What makes you want to go into battle with your child? Is it when you’ve asked them nicely to do something several times and they ignore you? And then you calmly and reasonably give them a gentle warning that they won’t get their TV time or stories… and they ignore you. And then you shout… but they still ignore you. And then you take away the TV or story… and then they react. They act as if that came straight out of the blue and is the most unreasonable thing ever and you are the meanest mummy/daddy in the world.
Generally when people suggest picking your battles it means choosing which things you’re going to get into a lather about and ignoring the rest. At The Parent Practice we say don’t ignore behaviours that you’re not happy about and don’t battle over them. Don’t ignore but take small actions before the behaviour escalates too far and while you’re still calm enough to deal with it.
Take action sooner with take 2s –Get your child to do it again correctly. This works well for little things like saying please and thank you or speaking in a polite tone of voice or asking to get down from the table.
Here’s how you can teach rather than engaging in battles:
If something has gone wrong and you’re heading into battle mode:
Kids will get things wrong because they’re learning but the way we teach them how to behave will have long term ramifications for how they deal with disagreements in their lives. Instead of teaching them to get into battles don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use words to negotiate and compromise?
For more on Positive discipline techniques see www.theparentpractice.com
May 13th, 2015
Some kids talk more than others.
If you’ve got more than one child chances are you’ve noticed this. Some of that is down to temperament and some may be attributable to gender. I have a daughter who is very extroverted. She used to come home from school and tell me everything that had gone on in her day in the first 2 minutes. I had to gear myself up for the onslaught the minute she got home. I became really grateful when the kids got home at different times so I could focus on all their different needs. With Gemma my challenge was just to listen, not to jump in with advice. When I buttoned my lip and let her know I was listening the storm would blow itself out and often she would find her own solutions. She would talk in order to work out what she thought about things. She just needed to be heard.
I also have two sons who happen to both be introverts. They like to think through things before speaking. When they got home from school they liked to chill out and wouldn’t offer anything about their day until the evening. I had a friend with a son with a similar disposition and she used to say she only found out what was going on in her son’s life through what I told her I’d heard from my boy.
Many boys don’t talk about their feelings. Traditionally men weren’t encouraged to and perhaps unwittingly we still give boys messages that in order to be a man they need to manage alone. Sometimes parents still say “big boys don’t cry” or we tell them not to make such a fuss or to be a big boy. If we tell our children to ‘man up’ what do we mean?
If dads model talking about how they feel about stuff then boys learn that it’s ok for men to do so.
The best way to get a boy to talk is not to sit down for an eyeball to eyeball conversation but to do an activity together. This is what Steve Biddulph calls ‘sideways talk’. Some of my best conversations with my sons have been while we’ve been walking or even doing the washing up together. When I picked them up from school we were more likely to get a conversation going if we were walking home. Usually pumping them for information about their day didn’t work. We all know that the answer to the question “How was your day?” is “fine”, with all the information that doesn’t convey. Young children live in the moment and often can’t be bothered to dredge up what happened earlier in their day. Some will actually want to keep their school world separate from home. They certainly won’t tell us anything if they think we’re going to judge, criticise, or perhaps even advise them.
You start the conversation. Tell him about your day. Tell him about age-appropriate things that you care about. Thank him for listening and maybe tell him you feel good talking to him. If you think he has something on his mind tell him you think he might be a bit worried about something. You can tell because of his body language or facial expressions or because of what he has said or done. Try to put yourself in his shoes. If you think you know what he’s feeling describe what that might be like for him. He might not talk now but you’ve opened the door for a conversation. If he does talk don’t say much, just nod a lot. Don’t judge and DON’T offer advice.
I remember when my older son was preparing (or not) for exams he started being mean to his younger brother. He used to do that a lot when he was younger and I was afraid we were slipping back into old patterns. In my anxiety and frustration I was tempted to tell him off or punish him but I realised in time that it might be connected to the exams that he showed no signs of caring about. I talked with him about how he might be feeling, detailing his anxiety, wondering whether he was afraid of letting us down, speculating that it might be difficult to follow in his academically able sister’s footsteps, even that he might be cross with himself for not having worked harder earlier. He didn’t say much…but his body language changed –his shoulders were less slumped and he made more eye contact. And his behaviour toward his brother changed.
I’d like to say he aced those exams but that would be fiction. But he developed better habits for the next set and, more to the point, he learnt to process his feelings well and find appropriate outlets for his frustrations and fears. This son still doesn’t talk a lot about his emotions but he is a great conversationalist and has good emotional awareness - he knows how to manage his feelings.
March 11th, 2013
Any parent and certainly anyone with more than one child will attest to the fact that children are born with inbuilt personality traits, characteristics that define how they interact with the world. Some are cautious from infancy while others will leap in and ask questions later. Some feel things intensely (they cannot believe you would give them the red cup rather than the blue cup) while others are more laid back (they will accept the Thomas the Tank Engine plate if the Winnie the Pooh one is in the dishwasher). Some will nag you until they wear you down while others will accept a ‘no’ and the obverse of this is true too –some kids will give up easily when the going gets tough (and maybe up-end the jigsaw puzzle while they’re about it) while others will stick to it until they’ve mastered the task. Parents will know which of their children need to be told in advance what is going to happen (these ones need the five minute warnings before they have to stop playing and come to have a meal) and which ones will go with the flow. Some kids have phenomenal reserves of energy and can wear parents to a frazzle while others will occupy themselves quietly and may actually be quite difficult to enthuse. Some see the positive side of everything while others persist in seeing the cup as half empty.
Researchers have discovered that “temperament has biological, neurological and physiological underpinnings that affect your child’s mood, ability to calm himself and activity level. … But biology is not destiny….Whether and how strongly genes that underlie behaviours are turned on or expressed depends on the interaction and relationships a child has with the important people in his life.” (Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Raising your Spirited Child)
Understanding what your child’s temperament is and allowing for it is a cornerstone of successful and connected parenting. “You don’t get to choose your child’s temperament [I used to think what a shame this was as I could have been such a good parent to a slightly different child], nor does your child, but you do make a big difference. It is you who helps your child understand his temperament, emphasize his strengths, provides him with the guidance he needs to express himself appropriately, and gently nudges him forward.” (Kurcinka)
We can all recognise the above characteristics in ourselves too and sometimes one of the difficulties is the conflict between our own personalities and that of our children. One of our facilitators talks about trying to get her introverted son to be more social as she saw this as the way to happiness because she was such an extrovert herself. I’m still coaching my now adult children to understand the personality differences between themselves and their siblings. My extremely extrovert daughter will spend time with friends in order to re-charge her batteries while my son is perfectly happy with his own company and in fact needs to be on his own for periods to re-energise. She thinks her brother (who is no longer living at home) doesn’t care about her when he doesn’t contact her as often as she’d like.
Child psychologist Brian Daly, who teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia said he often encounters families where parents have no problems with one child but a lot of problems with the other. “One child is very well-behaved and fits their parenting style,” he explained. “You could say the child’s temperament is a good match or fit. They rave about that child; the child is responsive and respectful.” (Parenting Styles: Is Your Child’s Temperament A Good Fit With Yours? By Beth J. Harpaz 05/ 2/12 )
But with the other child, the parents may feel that they’re “constantly butting heads. There may be temper tantrums, digging in heels, but without an appropriate result. A lot of times parents have certain values and it can be hard to adjust those values to meet the temperament of the child.” Daly said parents who are just as stubborn as their kids often get into standoffs because “neither will give ground.”
In 1956 psychiatrists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess found that children’s personalities could be put in three basic categories: easy, difficult, and slow to warm up. They also identified nine other variables that measured behaviours and traits like wilfulness, moodiness, activity levels, distractibility, attention span, and regularity in sleep, hunger and other biological functions. One finding from their research was that a good ‘fit’ between children and parents results when adult expectations, values and demands are in accord with a child’s natural capacities and behaviours.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka urges us to look at temperament in positive ways. She says that “Identifying your child’s temperamental traits is like taking an X-ray. It helps you to recognize what’s going on inside of your child so you can understand how he is reacting to the world around him and why. Once you realize the reasons behind his responses, you can learn to work with them, ease the hassles, teach new behaviours where they are needed, and most important, help your child understand and like himself.”
How can we understand, manage and accommodate our children’s temperaments? Below are some ideas of temperamental characteristics taken from Kurcinka’s book Raising Your Spirited Child. We are all somewhere on a spectrum that encompasses two extremes and everything in between so I may find myself somewhere slightly to the introvert end of that spectrum. There are positives and negatives to each characteristic and it will really help if parents can see the good elements of certain character traits and know how to manage those aspects they find difficult.
Intensity -this can be framed as doing things with energy and enthusiasm. We need to recognise that it can lead to great frustration for the child and we need to help the intense child to recognise this quality about themselves and to teach them to respond to growing intensity before it overwhelms them. We can provide calming activities (such as massage or calming music), use time outs as calming strategies not as punishments and use humour to diffuse situations. Parents of intense children will want to provide lots of opportunities for exercise and adequate sleep.
Persistence – this can be seen as sticking to things, determination and commitment rather than stubbornness. Persistent children can be independent and capable. View this as a good thing! Parents need to problem solve with the child to find solutions that work for everyone. It will be important to be consistent with family rules. This involves being clear in the first place about what your values are. Discuss this between parents and then have a family meeting to draw up rules. When the child doesn’t want to do what’s required his feelings will need to be acknowledged. This will help him to let go of the issue.
Sensitivity – it helps to recognise that this child is tender hearted. His sensitivities to feelings make him empathetic but also prone to hurt. He may be creative. He may dislike loud noises, bright lights and crowds, be overwhelmed by too much choice and clutter, he may dislike being touched and may find his clothes scratchy. Protect this child from overstimulation and restrict electronics. Help him manage his feelings by talking to him about them, describing them and accepting them. Teach him to recognise when he is getting overstimulated and find ways to self soothe.
Perceptiveness – this child notices things, has great observational skills and may be very creative. She may also get distracted easily. It may be hard for her to focus and hear instructions. Encourage her to listen by giving her lots of descriptive praise and by asking her to repeat your instructions. Don’t give too many instructions at once. Write rules down or have them in picture form. Ask her what she needs to do more than telling her. Minimise distractions by providing quiet and uncluttered environments for work and play. Allow her plenty of down time to chill out after she has had to focus.
Adaptability – this child likes to be organised, needs to know what is happening and may find change difficult, including transitioning from one task to another. He needs help to be flexible. Parents need to let this child know what’s happening ahead of time and allow time for him to get used to things. 5 minute warnings (but not in a threatening way) are helpful.
Regularity – see this child as flexible and spontaneous and enjoy the surprises rather than focusing on the inconsistencies which his temperament will throw up. He will need help getting used to routine and will need a high degree of consistency –this may be difficult if the parent themselves is irregular. He’d make a great ER doctor, DJ, pilot, police officer or other professional who works crazy hours.
Energy – the child who is full of energy may be a great sports person and work really hard and it can wear parents out living with them so it is important to plan to accommodate high levels of energy. Provide activities that stimulate and try to avoid too many of those that require sitting still for long periods. Allow opportunities to let off steam after being confined.
First reaction – the cautious child will often reject things on first presentation and is slow to warm up but it is alright to observe and judge before joining in. Be glad that this child thinks things through (you will when he’s a teenager) and praise him for it. Parents can help by forewarning of activities, practising in role play, descriptively praising the child for taking some risks, reminding them of similar times when they were successful and allowing time. Help the child recognise that their first reaction may not be their final one –they can change their minds.
Mood – this analytical, serious child may see the negatives of situations and may need encouragement to see the positives –this may involve pulling something apart into smaller segments to see what they enjoy about it. Encourage them to see themselves as deep thinkers. Celebrate little successes with them by using descriptive praise and talking about the good in many things. Keep a golden book where you record their own good behaviours, successes and things to be grateful for.
Other writers have different ways of characterising temperamental traits.
Extroversion – The extrovert is energised by other people. This child thrives in situations where there is a lot of interaction, activity, and stimulation. Extroverts are usually quite social and gregarious and are able to talk to new people. They are comfortable in groups, quick to approach others including strangers, and enjoy working in busy stimulating environments. Conversely, they can feel quite lonely, bored and drained if they have to spend a lot of time alone. They may act before thinking, not listen to others and flare up quickly. Introverts, on the other hand, can become drained by too much interaction. They draw their energy from the inner world of thoughts, emotions, and ideas. They tend to be more contemplative and are likely to pursue solitary activities that allow them to work quietly and alone. They tend to wait and listen until they’ve formulated their thoughts before expressing them.
Get to know your child’s temperament by observing them closely and considering what activities they like and apply the above guidelines to see what fits. The better you know your child the better you will be able to draw out the best in him or her and be less frustrated.